Young people have developed the phrase “dead tree book” for a publication with paper in it as they increasingly turn to digital sources for information.

Nonetheless, the North Carolina legislature made it harder for schools to engage students with computers when they passed a 2017 law that said textbook funds cannot be used to buy computer hardware.

Students in Jackson County Schools aren’t missing a beat, however. Digital learning, using computers at home and in the classroom, continue to be part of the curriculum. 

In 2017, the school system launched its Digital Learning Initiative with the goal of placing computers in the hands of all students in high school or early college. The resulting program is called One-to-One.

“We’ve been very lucky to have county commissioners who are forward-thinking and dedicated to the One-to-One project,” Chief Technology Officer Jeremiah Jackson said. “The commission puts about $350,000 a year towards our One-to-One initiative.” 

The system received $850,000 from a Golden Leaf Foundation grant that allowed for hardware purchases and teacher training, but those funds are drying up, Jackson said.

The school system buys between 600-650 new laptops per year.

“We fix our own devices,” Jackson said. “We use the extras (5 to 10 percent overage) to replace computers that might get dropped or broken.”

A request for proposals for new computers is expected within the week, Jackson said.

The RFP will list the desired specifications for the devices, such as size, memory and processor needs, and choose the winning vendor.

The school system works through a Microsoft program, Shape the Future, that will shave $70 off each computer if the purchase is from Lenovo, Dell, Hewlett-Packard or Acer, Jackson said.

The devices are on a three-year replacement cycle, Jackson said.

“If a student gets a device in seventh grade, they give it back to us at the end of ninth grade,” he said. “We take the old computers they’ve had for those three years and it goes down into the lower grades, so the fifth and sixth grades get computers.”

The devices are used for two more years, then retired when batteries weaken to the point they are no longer usable.

In most cases, students take the devices home to access instructional resources. Students who do not take home a device (day-users) pick up their devices each morning when they arrive at school and then drop them off at a designated location before they go home.

All digital learning devices are collected from students at the end of each school year and then redistributed at the beginning of the next school year. The loaner computers are now available down to students in the seventh grade. 

Students are restricted from installing software not approved by the school system, and internet filters are in place both at school and at home, Jackson said.

“Our focus is to use the technology to engage and differentiate the classroom experience,” he said. “It allows you to reach kids who may not be as engaged in other teaching forms. You can use it to liven up a classroom.”

“A lot of our textbooks are digital in this day and age,” School Superintendent Kim Elliott said. 

“Students might use them for everything from a term paper to an online exam to other activities. They’re used in class, in small groups and at home for homework.

“We really appreciate our funders from the Golden Leaf Foundation, our county commissioners and school board,” Elliott said. “They have funded our One-to-One in such a way that the professional development for staff and the educational pieces for students and parents is intact.”