Walking into Jeff Harding's classroom at Mundelein High School, it's tough to tell the students are there to learn algebra.
Instead of staring at a teacher scrawling math problems on a whiteboard at the front of the class, the teens face each other in pods of four desks, working on laptop computers called Chromebooks.
Starting this school year, all 2,110 Mundelein High students have the lightweight, wireless computers to use on campus, at home or wherever they choose to do schoolwork.
In Harding's class, the teens use the Chromebooks to watch five-minute videos of mathematical lectures the teacher has recorded and to complete practice problems related to the lessons.
The individual and small-group study frees Harding to bounce from pod to pod and personally help students grasp the concepts being taught. He interacts with students in ways traditional classroom lecturing doesn't allow.
This educational approach may sound strange to adults, but more and more schools are giving students laptop or tablet computers. Educators often call the efforts "1-to-1 initiatives" because that's the ratio of students to computers.
And the kids love it.
"We don't have to sit and listen to lectures, and you don't have to ask teachers to go back and repeat themselves," said Mundelein High freshman Hailey Klebek, one of Harding's students. "And you can go at your own pace."
In 1-to-1 programs, students can take their computers anywhere. The devices typically are leased by the schools, and families pay fees to participate.
At Mundelein High, the annual fee is $50.
Chromebooks and Apple iPad tablets dominate the market when it comes to hardware. Both employ Web-based programs -- called applications, or apps for short -- rather than installed software.
Chromebooks are produced by several companies, but they all use Google's Chrome operating system.
Although iPads have access to more apps than their rivals, Chromebooks are much less expensive, starting at just $199 instead of $400 or more. They also have full-sized keyboards, which iPads don't.
Mundelein High teacher Rachelle Halbur enthusiastically integrated the Chromebooks into the curriculum for her clothing class.
Last week, Halbur's students used the devices to research fashion designers and edit each other's projects.
As the year progresses, Halbur's students will use the Chromebooks to create presentations, communicate with each other during class and after school, make their own fashion designs and write copy for those creations.
"I just think that's super cool," Halbur said.
Freshman Madison Guin is a fan, too.
"They're so useful," she said. "I use them in every single class that I'm in."
Some have doubts
Of course, no new undertaking is ever without its critics.
"I think some teachers are making the Chromebook do the teaching," Mundelein High junior Victoria Avis said.
And even though freshman Paige Novander likes using her Chromebook for research and to keep herself organized, "it is a little bit of a hassle to carry it everywhere," she said.
More significantly, some education experts doubt the effectiveness of 1-to-1 initiatives.
Although the efforts put research resources at students' fingertips and give them the ability to make high-tech presentations, it's not yet clear if they help kids learn better, said Roxanne Owens, an associate professor and the chairwoman of teacher education at DePaul University.
If teachers aren't trained how to properly incorporate a Chromebook or iPad into their lessons, Owens said, "it's just an expensive prop."
"I don't think that we've done enough research on the pros and cons to justify the expense," she said. "The jury is really still out."
Those concerns haven't stopped schools across the suburbs from adopting 1-to-1 programs.
Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 issued iPads to all students and teachers at the start of the new school year. The move followed a two-year test program that gradually built up access to mobile tech.
Approximately 12,500 students at seven schools are participating this year. The district's research indicates the 1-to-1 initiative is working.
"Teachers are saying that students are more engaged because of the shift in learning with the iPads," District 211 spokesman Tom Peterson said. "Students are motivated to do work both at school and at home … (and) all kids have access to communication, breaking down the digital divide."
Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 officials began slowly rolling out a 1-to-1 program in August. They started with junior high students and are working their way down gradually through the elementary schools.
Every student in the district's 14 schools should have computers -- Nexus tablets for kindergartners through second graders, tablets and Chromebooks for older kids -- by late September.
"The students are incredibly excited about the opportunity to learn with the devices," said Ben Grey, the district's assistant superintendent for innovative learning and communication.
"Our staff continues to seek out innovative ways to offer kids greater ownership and agency in their learning, and we know this work will better prepare students to be successful for life in the 21st century," Grey added.
Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 officials plan to give every student mobile computers starting in the 2015-16 term.
Carts of laptops and tablets have been available for classroom use at Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools for a while now.
"Teachers see the benefits of students having one device to use from classroom to classroom and at home," said Rita Fischer, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
But simply giving computers to students isn't enough, Fischer said. Meaningful learning activities must be developed, too.
"Technology is not the goal," Fischer said. "Rather, (it is) the tool to access and support learning."