Tech Savvy: Chromebooks offer customized digital learning experience in ISD 181

Chromebooks 1
Brainerd School District staff members hand out Chromebooks to students in August, as a part of the district's new 1:1 technology initiative, where all high school students have personal Chromebooks to use in and outside of school. Submitted photo

The implementation of a 1:1 technology plan this year is a success so far in the Brainerd School District, according to Director of Technology Sarah Porisch.

New to the district this year, every student who takes at least one class at Brainerd High School received a Lenovo 300e Chromebook to use both in and outside of school. Students are required to bring the laptops charged to school every day and are allowed to bring them home for more personal use as well. They will retain their Chromebooks until graduation.

Middle school students also have personal Chromebooks this year but do not get to take them home.

The 1:1 technology initiative is a much-needed and overdue step for the district, according to Porisch, who said Brainerd is one of the last districts in the state to implement a program like this.

With nearly all high school students -- 97% -- picking up their Chromebooks during the handout days before the school year started, Porisch said she felt good about the positive start to the program.


“I was really proud of that because 97% of our families felt like it was important enough to take time out of their evenings and pick up their Chromebooks.”

There are four goals Porisch said the district hopes to accomplish with the addition of Chromebooks:

  • Students understanding personal vs. professional use of devices.

  • Differentiating instruction so all students can learn at their own pace.

  • Equity among students.

  • Increased student engagement and motivation.

Porisch said she had heard from local businesses that students were coming out of BHS without professional device skills. Though most students have access to some sort of electronic device at home -- most likely a smartphone -- that doesn’t mean they understand how to use the device professionally. For example, Porisch said several students had been using smartphones to write papers and create slideshows for classes, which should not be the case, she added.
Another piece of the professional device use is digital citizenship.

“What you put out there stays out there. Whether Snapchat, whatever it is, it’s going to stay out there,” Porisch said, noting teaching kids about privacy settings and the repercussions of posting things online is all a part of professional vs. personal device use as well.

By going 1:1, Porisch hopes teachers learn to use the devices to better reach every student, no matter what level they might be at.

When she previously taught language arts in Little Falls, Porisch said one of the best things about going to a 1:1 technology format was that she could provide assignments at different reading levels for different students or provide readings on specific topics that might appeal to different students to help them learn better.

One program that allows that differentiation is Google Classroom, a web service allowing teachers to create, distribute and grade assignments online by sharing electronic files with students. Teachers can assign things to specific groups of students or different assignments all together that target each student’s needs and abilities.

Porisch said she wants to see the program used across the district and has instructed all middle and high school teachers to make a Google Classroom for every class they have. How they use it, though, it completely up to them.


Some might just use the announcement feature to send messages out to students, while others upload all their assignments and class materials for easy access. Those who do use it for assignments can also tailor the assignment to the student, as Porisch noted she did in Little Falls.

While the differentiation can be helpful to make sure all students are learning at their own pace, Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning, said he still expects teachers to provide a common learning experience for common courses. For example, if there are multiple teachers teaching English 9, Murtha said every student should still have access to the same learning, same standards and same common assessments.

“That’s the equity of learning,” he said.

Aside from Google Classroom, a couple other apps Porisch said students and teachers have made use of so far are Screencastify and Kami.

Screencastify is a free screencasting app allowing users to capture what is on their screen in a video format.

Teachers can use the app to create instructional videos for students or give video feedback on online assignments (instead of writing comments on Google Docs).

For students, Screencastify can be useful for activities like narrating a PowerPoint slideshow, explaining their thought process when working on an assignment or even recording a speech or instrumental performance through the Chromebook’s webcam.

Kami is a note-taking app that allows students to make use of the touchscreens on their Chromebooks to highlight or make notes on assignments and other documents.


While these two apps might be popular with some kids though, Porisch noted Chromebook use differs from classroom to classroom and from student to student, as one note-taking app that works well for one person might not work well for another. But with the variety of apps offered for Chromebooks, students will more than likely be able to find something to suit them, which leads into the district’s third technology goal -- equity.

Though most students have access to a smartphone at home, they may not have access to a professional device, Porisch said, noting about 40% of students in the district qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“So I share with people, that’s 4 out of 10 of our students that probably didn’t have access to a professional device before this year, and now they do,” Porisch said. “So that’s a pretty huge part of it as well.”

But even with the addition of Chromebooks, not every student in the district has access to reliable high-speed internet at home. To combat that issue, all assignments teachers put on the Chromebooks can be downloaded during the school day when students have Wi-Fi and can be accessed later offline.

Additionally, all ISD 181 buses are now equipped with Wi-Fi for students to use freely on their way to and from school.

Lastly, Porisch said studies show student engagement and motivation have increased with the use of technology, directly impacting achievement scores on tests.

From hardcovers to e-textbooks

While the addition of Chromebooks will likely lead to fewer physical, hardcover textbooks in the future, that integration isn’t something that’s going to happen all at once or in the same way for every class.

Murtha said there are essentially three levels of online learning materials teachers can access.

First is a fully online curriculum, exactly like any physical curriculum with textbooks or anthologies teachers would previously buy, but just online.

The second option is Open Educational Resources, a program allowing teachers to access digital resources in the public domain and collaborate on materials with other educators. These materials could be anything from a class syllabus, to a single piece of reading material, to a full peer-reviewed textbook.

The third level is for teachers to just go online and find bits and pieces of materials that are in the public domain to supplement their current curricula, Murtha said.

“The reason I lay those three levels out is we have all three,” he added.

An advantage to teachers being able to access a variety of online resources, Murtha noted, is the customization piece. Publishers of textbooks and reading anthologies need to include specific items and a large variety of items to make their products attractive to many different groups, whereas teachers can use Open Educational Resources and other online materials to find exactly what they need without paying for excess.

A couple other advantages of online resources Porisch pointed to are cost and modernity. Some textbooks can cost as much as a Chromebook itself, and by the time teachers order textbooks and get them in their classrooms, they’re likely to be a couple years old.

In the online world, materials and resources can be updated with the push of a button.

Despite the likelihood of fewer physical books in the district’s future, though, both Murtha and Porisch said pencil and paper methods of teaching and learning are never going to die out.

“For years the students that have excelled with paper and pencil have had that tool,” Porisch said. “Our students that have needed something different haven’t had another tool. Now they do, but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to take that away from those students who excel with paper and pencil. There’s a time and place for everything.”

Murtha added the goal of the 1:1 technology initiative is to find the best learning tool for each student.

“Sometimes it’ll be extremely heavy on the digital side, and sometimes it’ll be light. It’s going to be about need and context,” he said.

Overall, Porisch and Murtha are both pleased with how the Chromebook integration has gone so far and are hopeful of the long-term benefits students will enjoy.

“It’s an exciting time,” Murtha said. “The introduction of instructional technology, or the student use of technology, offers us the ability to find different ways to see evidence of student learning. And for some kids, they need to show us that they understand, that they know and do something differently than other kids, relative to the same learning target.”

Porisch added she believes the Chromebooks are an important step in preparing Brainerd students for the global world beyond high school.

Chromebooks 2
Brainerd High School students wait in line in August to receive their personal Chromebooks before the school year begins. Submitted photo

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Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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