Though some teachers and students expressed concern, Lawrence school board approves switch from laptops to iPads

photo by: USD 497

The Lawrence school board meets at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive, for its meeting on Jan. 23, 2023. School Board Vice President Paula Vann participated virtually.

In a move expected to save the Lawrence school district on both repair and lease costs, Lawrence school board leaders have approved a recommendation to replace the laptops that the district has issued to all high school students with tablets instead.

As part of its meeting Monday, the Lawrence school board voted 6-1, with Kelly Jones opposed, to approve a recommendation from district administrators to pay $3.22 million to issue new iPad tablets to high school and middle school students, acquire some iMac desktop computers, and provide related technology support and services. The board heard concerns from some teachers and students that doing certain work was either difficult or not possible on an iPad, and that the district’s plan to have other devices available for certain classes would create logistical challenges and ultimately equity issues.

Barb Tholen, who teaches journalism, yearbook and graphic design at Lawrence High School, wrote a letter to the board with Zach Saltz, who teaches video and animation at LHS, about the need to continue to have laptops in their classrooms. Though the district’s plan would make laptops and desktops available in those and other specialized classrooms, Tholen spoke to the logistical challenges of sharing devices, including the time it takes to get dozens of devices checked out and students logged into them for each class.

“We have really deep concerns about how that’s going to be executed,” Tholen said. “In the past I think we know that we haven’t always anticipated all those problems that come up well.”

Saltz said that some students would be able to afford their own laptops, to work on at home or bring into the classroom, and that they also thought that situation would be a huge equity issue. He asked what happened to the students who couldn’t afford to buy their own laptops and what would happen if there were not enough devices available for all the students who wanted to check one out.

“These are questions that obviously are really hard questions to ask and we feel as though they’re not really being adequately asked at this point,” Saltz said.

The new lease agreement would replace the MacBook laptops previously issued to every Lawrence high school student with iPad tablets and issue new iPads to middle school students, who currently have iPads that were purchased in 2016. Students would also be issued keyboards with mouse trackpads and tablet pens. A district report indicates there was feedback from teachers of specialized classes that iPads would not work in their classrooms. As a result, the district is proposing that some classes, such as computer applications, journalism and photography, continue to use iMac desktops and MacBooks in their classrooms.

Some students also expressed concerns about equity, and also spoke to the difficulty of the iPad’s smaller interface and lower functionality, and how it was not the most effective tool for word processing. Kayleigh Gill, a senior at LHS, said that a lot of students have expressed concerns, and that it did not feel like the district was living up to its goal of being “student centered.”

“In many ways, iPads are a glorified cellphone,” Gill said. “It’s not really effective when writing long essays.”

Jones, who works in the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, said she was apprehensive about the change because laptops offered more functionality than iPads, and that because some students would have laptops at home and others wouldn’t, she was concerned about the digital divide that would create.

“From my vantage point, teaching at a university, my students are not using iPads, they are using laptops,” Jones said.

The report states the district piloted 40 iPads at each high school from October through December, which IT Director David Vignery said were placed in math and English classrooms. The report does not provide a specific breakdown of preferences, but it states that student and staff feedback varied, with some loving it, liking it, not liking it, and some not wanting to change from the current laptops. The Journal-World asked the district what percentage of the people who piloted the iPads said they preferred iPads and what percentage said they preferred MacBooks. District spokesperson Julie Boyle said Vignery visited pilot classrooms and had conversations with teachers and students, but there was no survey to gather that information.

Vignery told the board there were benefits noted in the math classrooms, such as touchscreen and the ability to draw, write, and chart math problems, but a general unwillingness to use the iPad in the English classrooms. Vignery said at the end of the day, he was fiscally responsible for the technology budget and needed to do his due diligence in that regard. He said he also looked at non-Apple devices, but that the cost of upgrades to improve functionality on cheaper devices and the fact that the district has Apple infrastructure already in place were considerations.

“Is it the best device? I’m not sure I can answer that,” Vignery said. “I think on certain things, an iPad would be the best device. I think on other things, a MacBook would be the best device. And we could go on down the road and say there’s other reasons why other devices would be better and some would be more inferior.”

A district report to the board includes budget considerations and rationale for moving to iPads. Specifically, the report states that the initial lease payment for laptops for high school students and staff was just under $500,000 annually but has since increased to a little over $1 million. In addition, the district has encountered an “enormous increase” in the number of repair issues with the most recent lease, most of which are due to costly screen breaks. Last year, the district had more than $250,000 in repair costs on the MacBooks. For comparison, the repairs during the initial lease cost the district around $30,000 annually.

The district estimates that when including the trade-in value for the old devices, the new lease for middle and high school devices would save the district about $1.3 million per year, or about $3.9 million over the three-year lease period. In addition, the district anticipates about $200,000 to $250,000 savings in repair costs in the general fund annually. The cost of the new Apple devices and services will come from the district’s capital outlay budget, as opposed to its strained general fund.

Board President Shannon Kimball said she heard the concerns expressed, and that she had confidence that they would be taken seriously as staff creates a plan for the transition to iPads and the continued use of other devices in specialized classrooms. Kimball said that ultimately because of the cost, continuing with the status quo was not an option, and that she acknowledged that change is not easy.

“We have a lot of decisions that we’re going to have to make in this district that are about difficult change and it’s hard,” Kimball said. “And I understand that and I want to share my empathy with that.”

Vignery said the new devices would be distributed to students in the fall.

In other business, the board received the quarterly equity report, which updates the board on testing results, attendance, and discipline incidents among different student groups and schools. The quarterly report and specific actions being taken within the district are part of the district’s efforts to address persistently lower assessment scores for many students of color. The report also includes an update on the district’s implementation of restorative discipline efforts, which the district previously rolled out at middle and high schools and is in the process of putting in place at the elementary level.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to correct the spelling of Barb Tholen’s name.


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