When the final bell rang in three Kentucky high schools, students climbed into buses to go home, but many of them left without understanding concepts that their teachers taught them that day.
Kids who needed more help couldn't follow their teachers home, and teachers couldn't talk on the phone each night with every kid who needed extra instruction or acceleration, said Heath Cartwright, the district technology coordinator and director of professional development at McCracken County Public Schools in Paducah.
That changed when the district started providing laptops for high school students and teachers last year. Now teachers use their laptops to communicate with students after school, and the students work on group projects at home.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work and patience to get teachers ready and to get administrators ready and to get your IT department ready, but what’s already in place is that the students are ready," Cartwright said. "They’re waiting on us.”
And in Kentucky, school districts are learning from each other so that their laptop programs will become effective tools in the hands of well-trained students and teachers. Here are six things to do to make laptops in education effective.
Before districts introduce laptops, they should determine their purpose.
“The school needs to establish upfront what the goals and objectives are of their program and how they’re going to measure those,” said Mike Manning, vice president of business development for the consulting firm Educational Collaborators.
Laptop projects fail when they have no focus and no realistic goals, said Rory Fundora, the chief information officer and district technology coordinator of Todd County Schools in Elkton. That's why her district has made its focus clear: Help students hone skills that will allow them to find well-paying jobs, go to college and be successful.
Over the past number of years, the major manufacturing jobs in the county disappeared, which caused unemployment rates to skyrocket. The 2,200 students in the small district needed an edge to compete for jobs with their peers in the larger districts that surrounded them, and they got it with the individual laptop program.
Two months after the high school teachers received their laptops, each student checked out one of the 900 machines in January 2009. At the same time, the elementary and middle schools received about 220 MacBooks on mobile carts so that they would be prepared to use them in high school.
Todd County has already surpassed its first-year goals, which included training teachers to create podcasts, build Web sites, start blogs, work with wikis and mix the tools into their teaching. This year, teachers will focus on updating their lesson plans to include tools such as online maps and virtual tours of museums. The plans will be posted online so that other teachers can find ideas and remix the activities for their classes.
Throughout the process of researching and starting a laptop program, the community needs to be involved. At Todd County Central High School, students gave their input and learned about their responsibilities.
“I’ll never forget the very first assembly we did with them," Fundora said. "One of my sophomore girls stood up, and she said, ‘You know what? I am sick and tired of hearing that you can’t do this ’cause you’re from little old Todd County.’ She said ‘I’m ready to show them what little old Todd County can do.’”
Before Marshall County School District decided to give teachers laptops, administrators sent surveys to them to find out if they were interested and what value the tools would have, said John David Son, chief information officer. Once the team members found that teachers were interested, they talked to district leaders and stakeholders in Benton. Currently, they're laying the foundation for a 1:1 project by providing laptops to teachers in July.
Over a period of two months, the staff at McCracken County Public Schools worked long hours and traveled many miles to learn from other schools with successful programs, including Todd County Schools and Westside High School in Omaha, Neb.
Cartwright's staff had to address what kind of wireless environment they would need, whether they should hire additional staff, how to insure the laptops, what their acceptable use policy should look like and how to build professional development learning communities within the buildings.
When schools look into the cost of a laptop program, they should take a variety of factors into consideration, including what the program could save them, he said. Because teachers and students pass assignments back and forth digitally, they don't need to copy worksheets or tests, which cuts down printing costs.
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The 7,000-student school district had recently deployed hundreds of new PC desktops in its three high schools, so when it bought 2,130 laptops, the IT staff reallocated the desktops to to the elementary and middle schools, which also saved them money.
“If you embrace the potential and the opportunities presented in a 1:1, then it just becomes a matter of, 'OK, instead of where are we going to find the money,'" Cartwright said, "you look at it as 'how are we going to make this work.'”
Parents whose kids take their laptops home pay an annual insurance consortium membership of $40 to the district, half the cost that other districts paid for third-party insurance.
In Todd County, administrators combed their budget line by line to see how they could cut and where they could move funds around. They also negotiated good terms from Apple on a four-year, $1.2 million lease, as well as a recycling program where they'll swap out everything they have between years three and four, Fundora said.
She advises other schools to look at the complete solutions that vendors provide, not just which machine is cheaper, because no one can put laptops in students' hands and expect them to transform learning. The key to a successful laptop program is professional development for teachers.
“Teachers are very used to being the leaders in the classroom," Fundora said, "and when you hand students computers, they’re running circles around those teachers."
That's why schools need to empower their teachers so that they can become confident with using the laptops and helping students learn with them.
When teachers are not prepared, that oversight can have disastrous effects, said consultant Alex Inman from Educational Collaborators. He pointed to a 2007 New York Times story that detailed the multi-million dollar failure of some laptop programs, including one at Liverpool Central School District in New York. There, the teachers were apathetic of the program, and the students abused their laptop privileges.
“If your teachers weren’t bought in and didn’t understand what it’s purpose was and weren’t trained to take advantage of the resource that the taxpayers had provided them, that’s a real problem,” Inman said. "That article was every tech director’s nightmare who runs a 1:1 program.”
As Marshall County School District is planning its laptop program, the IT team will tackle the big challenge of staff training and professional development for its nearly 400 teachers. Not all the teachers have the same level of skills with laptops, so they need proper training that applies to them, Son said.
Novice users will need time to get used to the laptops, as well as interactive whiteboards, clickers and document cameras.
“We want to make sure they’re comfortable with those tools before we start showing them how to technically integrate those in the classroom,” Son said.
The teachers in McCracken County learned how to mix the tools into their teaching from each other. Once a month, an Apple consultant met with 5 teachers from each school and trained them on the MacBooks, said Molly Goodman, technology integration specialist.
Those teachers went back to their schools and led training sessions on basic operations such as what iPhoto and iMovie could do. Now that the program is in its second year, a different set of teachers are leading training sessions, and Goodman spends at least one day a week at each school to help teachers in their classrooms.
In a class, 30 kids might be more proficient in iMovie than their teachers, which is why teachers should allow students to learn from each other and design projects and assessments.
“You can’t be afraid of letting kids be creative," Goodman said. "You can’t be afraid of giving kids ownership of their classroom and making them contributors to what it is they do every day, and that’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve been pushing from minute one.”
The laptops have allowed Todd County educators and students to change their teaching and learning.
“It was more of a toy to them last year," Fundora said. "This year it’s become that tool. We made them wait the first two weeks of school before we gave them back to them this year, and they were beating my door down.”
In science classes, students do virtual labs online and create podcasts of what they learned so that others can access them. Instead of writing a report about suicide or drug use, teens create video public service announcements so that they can help others who might be in bad situations.
Fundora will never forget the day last year when they were collecting the laptops at the end of school. One of the boys gave her a hug and said that he was about to quit school in December because he was bored and didn't feel challenged, but he decided to give the laptops a shot. He told her that he was starting college in the fall, which brought tears to Fundora's eyes.
Discipline referalls have been down in both Todd and McCracken county schools since the laptop program started because most of the kids who were not excited about the traditional school setting have become interested in education again.
“We’ve had our bumps in the road like anybody will," Cartwright said, "but we feel without a doubt that we are preparing our students to have not only a better education, but better futures with this initiative.”