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Keys to Implementing a Laptop Program

Connecticut's Thomas Edison Middle School issued every one of the school's 6th graders a laptop computer. More than 30 major planning meetings and countless person-hours went into the rollout, which was declared a success by everyone involved. How did they do it? Can you do it, too? Find out how. Included: A step-by-step guide to the TEMS laptop rollout.

Driving up to Thomas Edison Middle School (TEMS) in Meriden, Connecticut, you might think you were approaching a high-tech corporation. The building that houses this inter-district technology magnet school is futuristic in appearance. Inside, all roads lead to a turret that is the hub for the school's main classrooms, and in that hub a three-story pendulum swings, slowly marking the rotation of Earth.

The day Education World visited the school, something else dramatic was going on: One of the three sixth-grade teams was issuing each of its 80 students a laptop computer.


Laptops staged for deployment.

A DAUNTING GOAL

"We looked at all the information on laptop programs that we could find," said Dan Metz, senior systems network engineer for Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), the inter-district agency that governs the school. Metz and the others involved in that research did not find a complete model for the TEMS laptop program; they would need to improvise to achieve their goal. They wanted students to experience what the user of a good corporate network experiences -- seamless access to network resources, individual e-mail, storage while at school, and access at home if the household is online. That's right: The kids take the laptops home.

If the prospect of implementing that plan sounds daunting, perhaps you'd like to know that you're right. Their quest led the TEMS team through more than 30 major planning meetings. The investment of countless person-hours was worth it though. So far, the TEMS program seems to be working like, well, like a well-maintained laptop computer.

In retrospect, the team is thankful to a fairly simple motto, according to assistant principal Leo Lavallee: "Over-plan, over-train, and over-support."

The benefits of each of those key principles were in evidence the day of the laptop rollout.


Kids wrote contact information on the back of a school business card and slid the card into a plastic sleeve on the bottom of the computer.

OVER-PLAN

Only a long and thorough planning process could have resulted in the detailed agenda created for the first three days of student laptop use.

On the first day, an instructor (from Technology Solutions, a group housed at ACES that serves districts throughout the state) acquaints students with their laptops, helps them sign on to the network, and troubleshoots hardware, software, network, and kid issues.

On the second day, that instructor co-teaches with the classroom teachers, who have each prepared a lesson that integrates laptop use with their current curriculum topic.

On the third day, the classroom teachers take over, with the instructor from Technology Solutions there as backup.

Of course, the first three days comprise just the introductory phase of the program. An equally well thought-out plan picks up where that introduction leaves off. Policies cover everything, including:

  • Students who have no Internet access at home. They are taught a simple routine they can perform to "pack up" all the Web pages their teachers want them to look at for homework.
  • Daily routines. Students are responsible for synching to the network daily; as they do that, strict filtering software and human inspection catches violators of the school's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP).
  • The financial aspects of the program. Families assume a $100 per incident liability for laptop damage or loss.

OVER-TRAIN

The best evidence of over-training on the day Education World visited TEMS was that nothing went wrong. Well, almost nothing. The few problems that were encountered all had been drilled many times, and no insurmountable obstacles had cropped up; the mood, therefore, was jovial.

The only other glitch we saw was when one student came into the room where staff, volunteers, and guests were having lunch to file a teary-eyed report that she had misplaced her laptop. But no teacher, administrator, or support person seemed at a loss for even a moment as they played their roles in the program's complex script.

When one teacher jokingly threatened to call in sick the morning she was going to have to do her techno lesson, Lavallee replied, just as jokingly, "Rollout means roll out of bed."

OVER-SUPPORT

With administrators, tech support people, parent volunteers, classroom teachers, and even student tech leaders from the upper grades pitching in, the student-to-helper ratio during laptop introduction was about 3 to 1. Given that some students were happily racing ahead to reconfigure their laptops' cursors within minutes of turning on the machines, not all those kids needed technology help in the first place.


Principal Pat Joaquim was among the educators, parent volunteers, and older students available to help kids get started in the rollout classrooms.

A PROGRAM WITH A BROAD VISION

"It's not just the boxes," Lavallee later told Education World. "It's not just learning Windows and some applications. In this school, we're trying to build for the kids a society where people do the right thing. The laptops primarily are about responsibility, as far as the kids are concerned. Each kid knows that the other kid is carrying around an expensive piece of technology."


Part of kids' responsibility is to come to school with a recharged laptop. Penalties for breaking program rules include suspension of laptop privileges.

Nevertheless, for some kids, the technology is novel in itself. Pat Joaquim, TEMS' principal, sees the laptops in part as "a way around the digital divide." TEMS draws from diversity populations. In the classes we observed, some students did not raise their hands when asked if they had Internet access at home. After being issued their laptops, several students started off tentatively; they seemed to make each move on the touchpad with just a little extra care. By the end of the first three hours, however, even those kids who at first seemed a little more reluctant than others were following instructions with more confidence, feeling their way to a firmer footing in a world that, perhaps, their households have not yet entered.

Because the school's 7th and 8th graders were issued their laptops earlier in the school year, benefits of the program already are being observed by the TEMS team. The laptops are a highly engaging medium, and kids seem to be spending more time on task. Teachers' instruction styles are moving away from the "sage on the stage" mode and more toward the "guide on the side." The curriculum itself has been affected as well: "Current events" are suddenly very current indeed.

In turn, being as connected or more connected in school than at home brings a new feeling of authenticity to the kids' school experience. A ditto sheet is "school stuff." An Excel spreadsheet is grown-up stuff.

In the long run, principal Joaquim sees the school moving toward electronic portfolio assessment, making it possible through technology to achieve a far more nuanced picture of each student's abilities, while at least approximating the efficiency of standardized testing.

Already, TEMS has begun to replace paper textbooks with electronic content that is updated continuously. The ultimate goal is to be able to see exactly the kind of lesson a particular student needs based on his or her portfolio of work and other measures -- including many that incorporate teacher judgment -- and then to be able to browse for exactly the kind of lesson the student should do next, and send it straight to that student's desktop.

Asked about the program's cost and the commitment, Joaquim pointed out that the three-year lease the school has for the laptops helped spread out the cost over time. She also noted that much of the electronic content is cheaper than paper textbooks, which run up to $100 or more per student and typically have a useful life of only 5 years or so.

HOPES AND CONCERNS

"This is going to bring the real world into the classroom," said Jennifer Slifer, one of the teachers involved in the 6th-grade laptop rollout, when asked about her hopes for the program. When asked about her concerns, she responded "Maintenance and time."

As with everything else, however, the school has a documented procedure for maintenance problems that is as minimally disruptive as possible of classroom time:

  • First, a student tech leader -- remember the AV assistant, the kid who knew how to thread a 16mm projector? -- is asked to look at a problem a classmate is having.
  • If the solution isn't obvious to the student tech leader within a few seconds, the teacher is alerted.
  • If the teacher doesn't see the solution immediately, the student closes his or her laptop and a tech is called from the office.
  • Meanwhile, the student with the affected laptop buddies up with another kid until such time as his or her laptop comes back on-stream.

Students are not permitted to glue or tape anything to the laptops; some kids discovered how to lift the protective film used for shipping, slide decorations under it, and smooth it back down to seal.

Certainly, it's a good plan -- one that is reportedly working with precision in the upper grades. But time is such a precious commodity in the classroom that Slifer's concern is one to watch in schools deploying laptops or any large-scale technology effort. Who's to say exactly how long the student tech leader is to spend being the AV assistant? Managing even a broken pencil sharpener in a classroom can be disruptive of time, let alone 20 or 30 laptops.

Other concerns that have been raised include questions about the extent to which technology might distract kids from developing other useful skills, such as handwriting and art appreciation. "There has to be a balance between paper and technology," concluded Joaquim. "The question you keep coming back to in evaluating any idea for using the laptops is, 'Does it enhance teaching and learning?" With a group at nearby Quinnipiac University preparing to study the impact of TEMS' high-tech approach on student outcomes, that question might soon, excuse the pun, be put to the test.

Article by Forrest Stone
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

All Photos by Education World

Updated 07/23/2010
 

 

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