Focus: Instructional Technology

Before Adopting a Laptop Initiative

by ELIZABETH ROSS HUBBELL

How often have you heard the story of a school or district spending thousands of dollars on technology without any evidence it will have an impact on student learning?

Whether a failure to prepare teachers for a fundamental shift in how they teach or a failure to plan for technology obsolescence, district and school leaders have considerable information to gather and up-front planning to do if a laptop implementation is to be successful. One of the best ways to collect this information is to conduct a technology audit. It can save time, money and headaches.

Last year, I worked with a suburban school district that was preparing for a laptop initiative. Their initial thinking was to start small with just a few schools, then expand it K-12. The district leadership thought the high school would be the most logical starting point for the rollout.

After discussing the idea with principals, the superintendent decided to have McREL conduct a technology audit to see how comfortable teachers were with current technologies and how easily a new tool could be integrated into the current culture.

Classroom Climate
The audit results surprised them. Teachers of kindergarten through 2nd grade and those at the high school level tended to use the most traditional methods in their instruction. When I walked into these classrooms, students often were passive audiences to teacher-led, whole-group instruction. I saw a fair amount of worksheets and teacher-directed question-and-answer sessions.

This did not mean learning wasn’t happening, but a laptop initiative in this environment probably would have resulted in expensive machines being used for rudimentary tasks, such as early learning games or note taking.

At the upper-elementary and middle-school levels, however, instruction looked quite different. Students often were engaged in small-group, collaborative learning. The classrooms had a busy buzz to them as students discussed ideas, collaborated on projects and shared their learning with the larger group.

The structure of the rooms represented pods of activities. I often found the teacher taking the role of a facilitator who would help a group refocus or work through a challenge, then move on to the next group. The levels of Bloom’s taxonomy that the lessons targeted often were at a higher level of thinking. A set of laptops in this environment had potential to be used not only for building basic skills, note-taking and research, but also for collaboration and communication among groups and for evidence of learning beyond quizzes and tests.

Based on the audit details, the school district started the laptop initiative at the middle-school level, while focusing professional development on how to create engaging, project-based, differentiated classrooms.

Gathering Data
A good tech audit will gather data through various tools — surveys, focus groups, classroom walkthroughs, and interviews with members of the schools and district — to get an understanding of what learning looks like in that environment.

If you are considering implementing a 1:1 initiative, ask yourself these questions:

•  How are the teachers and students in my building or district using the tools they already have?

•  How well do my teachers vary how students are grouped? 

•  How well do my teachers allow flexibility and variety in showing evidence of learning? (Do students primarily show learning through a summative assessment, or do teachers use many formative assessments?)

•  Do teachers support and extend students’ understanding of basic concepts by developing authentic projects that take student learning to a higher level?

•  Do teachers know how technology can transform students’ capacity to create, collaborate and communicate? 

•  Do all students in the school or district emerge prepared to use 21st-century tools in collaborative and creative settings, or is their experience dependent upon teacher interest and comfort level?

•  How ready are my teachers for highly differentiated instruction?

A Costly Tool
When schools and districts spend thousands of dollars on expensive and powerful equipment without finding out if their teachers and students are prepared to use these tools, they may find the machines are only being used, as Alan November points out in an article on his website November Learning , as a “$2,000 pencil” for web research, word processing, note taking and disseminating PowerPoint documents.

In these situations, teachers are, in a sense, integrating technology, but its use has little advantage over paper-and-pencil methods. Some teachers even may insist students put valuable learning tools away during instruction because they view them as distractions or inappropriate in the classroom.

On the other hand, when teachers are well-versed in creating environments in which students regularly collaborate on projects, use a variety of high-level strategies, and have choices in how they receive and disseminate what they have learned, technology seamlessly, almost invisibly, exists as a tool to facilitate these processes.

Which Route?
Implementing a 1:1 laptop initiative requires much more than purchasing hardware and software. It requires teachers being comfortable with no longer being the “sage on the stage.” It requires a general knowledge of various tools that help students collaborate on projects and communicate with others.

Finally, it requires a plan for dealing with inappropriate behavior in a way that addresses the infraction rather than banning the media that provided the means. A tech audit can help a school or district decide what professional development, curriculum alignment and staffing are needed for an initiative to be most ­successful.

Elizabeth Hubbell is an educational technology consultant at McREL in Denver, Colo. E-mail: ehubbell@mcrel.org