Shawnee Mission prepares to roll out changes to tech initiative as some parent concerns persist

Approximately 1,600 SM East students received MacBook Airs as part of the first deployment in district history last year. This year, the district will complete the 1:1 device rollout by adding 23 elementary schools to the program.
Approximately 1,600 SM East students received MacBook Airs as part of the first deployment in district history last year. This year, the district will complete the 1:1 device rollout by adding 23 elementary schools to the program.

Distributing brand new laptops and iPads to thousands of students for the first time even as part of its digital learning initiative was no small undertaking for the Shawnee Mission School District.

And as the district prepares to complete its 1:1 device distribution for the coming school year by providing iPads at an additional 23 elementary schools for 2015-2016, it’s also getting ready to make some tweaks to the program — tweaks that may or may not assuage some of the concerns voiced by parents about the initiative over the previous months.

The biggest change in the program for the coming school year will be the use of Macbook Air laptops at the middle school level instead of iPads, which were the device used at the middle school level last year. The students will be able to take the computers home for use on schoolwork there.

“The change from iPads to MacBooks at the middle school level was in response to feedback the district received from staff and students regarding concerns about extended writing activities,” said district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal.

Additionally, the district will be adding keyboard sets to be used with iPads at the elementary level, where there will be more writing activities using the devices this year.

But Neal said the district doesn’t have plans to change one of the features that caused the most concerns for some district parents — the messaging feature baked in to all of the laptops, which allows students to communicate with each other via short text messages that show up on their desktops.

Liz Sears, the mother of three Shawnee Mission students, is among the group of parents who have voiced concerns about implementation of the technology to the board of education. Sears and several other parents say they felt some features of the technology frequently proved a distraction to their kids during study time.

“ I was excited about technology when it came, but we had a lot of problems at home,” she said.

The constant messaging on the computer and at-hand availability of the internet proved a distraction to her high school son during homework time.

“I kind of felt like, other than me hovering, which is not good for my relationship with my high schooler, there was nothing to do [to help keep him on task],” she said. “I was really frustrated, and as I talked to other parents, I found they were frustrated too. We felt like they were given too much leeway and not a lot of instruction on how to use technology as a tool. They see it as more of a toy.”

But the district won’t be making any changes to the messaging system.

“The district is not planning to remove or change the message feature on digital devices,” Neal said. “Toward the end of this past school year, the district did identify that an update applied to the content filter impacted the message feature for a few days on the laptop computers.  That issue was corrected as soon as it was discovered.  This summer, technology maintenance is being done to ready the devices to be distributed to students at the start of the new school year.”