The Lap of Learning

Henrico County’s districtwide use of wireless technology may alter the instructional landscape by MARK A. EDWARDS
“You can go ahead and make an announcement by 7 p.m. this evening to close school tomorrow,” a 7th grader spontaneously announced as I was visiting classes at one of our middle schools. Several other students joined in. One said, “We’ve been tracking the snowstorm on our laptops and developing operating charts analyzing its rate of speed and potential accumulation and we just know it will hit hard by 7.”

On my way out, Anne Poates, principal of Byrd Middle School, indicated that the students’ enthusiasm toward their applied learning was becoming the norm. “The students are certainly energized by the snowstorm and they are equally energized by being able to use laptops for their science and math classes.” Nancy Smith, a science teacher at Byrd, remarked as we were in the hall, “I just cannot imagine going back to studying weather by looking at pictures in books when we have the advantage of real-time technology to teach our students.”

A few days later while leading a tour through Deep Run High School, some visiting educators from California commented how impressed they were with the students’ use of laptops. One visitor, Father Michael Brennan, remarked, “We just visited 10 classrooms and the students never looked up or paid any attention to us; they were totally engrossed in their learning and all using the laptops.”

There is no doubt about it: Our deployment of 25,000 iBook laptop computers in our 6th- through 12th-grade classrooms is truly revolutionizing how we teach and how students learn in Henrico County, Va.

Four-Year Lease
When we first analyzed the possibility of moving to a one-to-one technology program in our school system, we looked at the financial, instructional and political challenges we would face. Our school board, PTA presidents, school principals and focus groups of students and teachers encouraged us to move forward.

The decision to do so was based on three principal goals:
* To improve teaching, learning and student achievement;
* To improve our methodology by using an engaged instructional practice;
* To address a significant digital divide in our school system. Out of 43,000 students, approximately 40 percent did not have access to technology at home.

After lengthy negotiations with Apple Computer, we developed a partnership plan that would enable us to put a laptop into the hands of every Henrico County middle school and high school student as well as their teachers. The plan included a four-year lease program that enabled us to establish a strong foundation as well as a replacement cycle for technology. We were able to achieve this within our local operating budget by dedicating 5 percent of that budget for technology. Of note, Henrico County operates with approximately $500 less than the state average on annual per-pupil expenditure.

The entire laptop deployment is a wireless program that provides greater portability and mobility of computer use. One of the most significant benefits of the wireless system is not having to wire every computer in every classroom. Students can hook up to phone or cable modems at home.

Proper Planning
Planning for such a change takes place on two levels. School administrators had to first put in place a system of sheer logistics. Secure storing locations to receive the shipment of laptops had to be identified. A system of distribution, complete with an initial training session for small groups of students and parents, had to be designed. Scanning barcodes for accurate inventory, collecting insurance payments and forms, organizing a help desk to troubleshoot and answer questions, and collecting commitment statements for proper use and care were all part of a plan that brought order in the many logistical aspects of putting the new tools in students’ hands.

Teachers had to plan how to integrate the use of laptops into lessons that focused on student-centered problem solving, research and collaborative project-based activities. Teachers and administrators understood the change process and knew they could not bulldoze change. Careful attention was given to stakeholders’ emotional intelligence in the planning process. Continuous training, coaching and support were as much a part of the first-year planning as high expectations for laptop use.

As the year progressed, teachers and students learned together and confidence grew each day. As one teacher remarked, “We knew it was OK to try something and fail. The important thing was to keep trying and to move forward. We knew this teaching shift was going to take time and our principal was supportive. He knew exactly how to lift and push us at the same time.”

Planning is ongoing and knowledge sharing is a core value as principals, teachers and students collaborate and learn together.

Training and Support
The learning curve associated with the initiative was huge for students and particularly so for adults. This is not to say that instructional technology was new to Henrico. On the contrary, the district already provided desktop computers in classrooms that were connected to the Internet through previous technology initiatives. What was new was the one-to-one, wireless, simultaneous access for all teachers and students.

The laptop deployment to teachers was met with excitement and anxiety. Teachers recognized the extraordinary opportunity for teaching and learning, but some wondered, "Can I do this?" and "How do I do this?"

Given the new territory, it was important to provide assurances to teachers that the necessary training and support would be available from the onset. During the laptop deployment, teachers were given a menu of training opportunities so they could see tangible support for what lay ahead. The first round of training helped teachers become familiar with the new iBook and its capabilities. Topics that followed included: (1) understanding and using electronic resources, (2) integrating instructional technology into teaching and learning, (3) using pertinent software and (4) troubleshooting.

The technology trainers who were themselves master teachers were assigned to each school and played a key role in teacher development. Trainers provided before- and afterschool instruction for groups and individuals and helped teachers develop lessons that integrated technology in a meaningful way.

School-based institutes, tailored to individual needs of schools and teachers, were another means to provide training during the school year and summer. Institutes were taught by master teachers from Henrico and teachers received $18 per hour for participating. During the summer, a districtwide teaching and learning institute focused on the critical aspects of integrating technology into the teaching and learning process.

Teacher teams from each secondary school were organized across different content areas and charged with developing electronic lessons specific to the subjects they taught. The effort also helped build the leadership capacity of teachers. Because teachers from each school participated in the development of electronic curricula, teacher leaders were available in each school to provide support and direction to their colleagues as the laptop implementation occurred. Gaynelle Lyman, a physics teacher at Varina High School, said, "Since I helped develop electronic lessons, I understand them from the inside out, and I can provide insights for my colleagues back at school. Electronic learning is no longer a mystery."

Our students have a natural predisposition toward the use of technology and had much to offer with regard to teacher development. Schools capitalized on this circumstance and enlisted students as mentors and teachers to the adults. Pete Anderson, a math teacher at Hermitage High School, said of the student support, "We truly have become a learning community. My students are a great resource. When we hit a snag, we come up with solutions together and forge ahead. I can't imagine doing this without their help."

The pace and uniqueness of the initiative meant that everyone was learning along the way. This meant that staff development plans changed regularly as new insights were gained. The key is to plan as best you can but to remain flexible. Technology changes at the speed of light and so do the training needs of teachers.

Integrating Learning
The teaching and learning initiative is more than laptop deployment. It is about a transforming change in resources, activities, roles and relationships in our schools. The purpose of the initiative is to create a new model of teaching and learning that is based on high levels of student engagement where 21st century tools dissolve the walls of the classroom.

The Internet has more than a billion websites. Add to that other digital resources related to content and teachers could be overwhelmed in structuring activities and securing content for electronic learning. To use this wide-open frontier of information as a primary resource for teaching in a standards-based climate of high-stakes assessment, we recognized the crucial need for a process that harnesses digital resources to load in a framework of the stated curriculum.

Using the Virginia Standards of Learning as that framework, e-learning curriculum writing teams, comprised of central administration curriculum specialists, teachers and technology teachers/trainers, created units that include digitized content and activities.

The development of e-learning course resources retains the challenge of other curriculum development with the added dimension of technology resources that provide interactions that increase the emphasis on learner-centered tasks. Partnerships with such companies as Blackboard.com and BeyondBooks.com have emerged in order to manage and develop e-learning curriculum. E-curriculum writing teams continually must pass content and activities through the lens of state standards as they put together appropriate Internet resources and other digital content. Lesson plans and units are developed and uploaded to master shells for each course. By using these digital resources as a centerpiece for teaching and learning, students and teachers have a compass to guide them as well as the benefit of up-to-date, vibrant information to teach curricular standards.

An enthusiastic U.S. history teacher explained the impact of the digitized curriculum in the classroom this way: “The material is incredible. For example, we studied Lewis and Clark today. Before I would have just said, ‘Lewis and Clark did this, this, this and this…’ Today when students went to a website, they traced each stage of the trail. They could go to the map and click on a number that explained what happened at that exact location. It helps students see things in a different way. They are definitely digital learners.”

As another teacher explained, “The difference between textbooks and digitized content is like comparing the taste of stale bread with fresh bread right out of the oven.”

Standing Firm
As excited as we are about the ongoing benefits of our laptop program, it has definitely been a test of our commitment, determination and teamwork.

We know now how hard trailblazing can be as it presents personal and professional challenges. Last year when we had to work through network inadequacies, student security issues and multiple other problems that received significant media coverage, the skeptics opposed to this concept were aggressive in voicing strong disagreement and sometimes aired personal attacks regarding our decisions. It was essential for school leaders to stand in the face of a challenge and to have the tenacity to deal with it.

Fortunately, the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Richmond Technology Council, as well as the Henrico Education Foundation, our PTA presidents, university officials and numerous business leaders stood tall on behalf of the school system and supported this leap into the future. Without the tremendous team leadership of technology and instructional staff and numerous teachers and principals, no system can expect to be successful in this type of endeavor.

One school leader we turned to for guidance as we moved into deployment was Carmen Granto, superintendent in Niagara Falls, N.Y., who a year earlier had distributed laptops to each high school student. He offered this advice to me:

* Be strong and stay the course and know that challenges will come.
* Work with the business community, as well as the initial committee, to engineer and develop support as you navigate through the rough waters.

Perhaps the most important leadership lesson was something we learned in kindergarten: Hold hands and stick together. Working consistently with individual school board members as well as the board collectively and with our partners at Apple Computer has proven immensely beneficial.

Digital Divide
Last summer a student walked into the main office at Virginia Randolph Community High School and handed the secretary a large jar of nickels, dimes and quarters. “This is my $50 insurance money for my laptop, and I want to be sure you have my money when the computers come in,” he announced. “This will be the first computer we have ever had in our house.”

Perhaps one of our most significant outcomes is the impact our initiative is having on homes that previously did not have a computer or access to the Internet. We have heard numerous comments from students, parents and grandparents about how technology is changing the lives of not just the student but the entire family.

An important element of our deployment plan was the requirement of students and parents signing a responsible and acceptable use policy. We also initiated a request for proposals to provide an inexpensive Internet Service Provider for students and staff so the true benefit of this tool could be experienced at home and school. One parent shared that they have a special place in their home to put the laptop computer and have devised a family schedule. Although the high school student receives first priority, everyone in his family has an opportunity for computer time.

While I was grocery shopping one day last summer, a woman asked me when the students would receive their laptops back from the maintenance service. She emphasized how not only her daughter needed the laptop, but the entire family depended on it. “I know my daughter needs that laptop back as soon as possible and so do I,” she said. “We have never had the money to buy a computer, and we have been using it every day since she brought it home.”

The school district has loaded an SAT preparation package on each computer, a valuable asset that was available previously only to college-bound students with the means of paying for an expensive preparatory course.

These efforts have resulted in the scaffolding of a bridge over the digital divide to benefit students and their families.

Early Evaluation
As part of the partnership with Apple, the school system has agreed to be a living laboratory with one-to-one, seven-day-a-week computing for teachers and students to test a vital concept: Does 24/7 technology access increase student achievement? After nearly two years of implementation, both teaching and learning are significantly different in the Henrico County secondary school classrooms. Through qualitative, anecdotal and first-year quantitative data, we are seeing early indicators of a positive impact.

Ongoing qualitative and anecdotal data are obtained through direct feedback from students, parents, community/business leaders and staff to identify needs. Focus groups consisting of students, teachers, parents and administrators are held routinely to build knowledge about building-level infrastructure, instructional methods and support. As one high school principal stated, “By working together, I feel a sense of camaraderie that I don’t think existed before. We all have unique school communities, but we have the same challenges and the initiative has caused us to work, share and learn together.”

Anecdotal accounts from teachers indicate the hands-on learning and teaming that accompany constructive projects and inquiry-based learning activities foster interactive student teacher and student-student relationships. Students indicate that when technology is used effectively as a learning tool, they are more confident in their classroom performance and their organizational skills. With instructional materials organized on computers, an added bonus is less need for students to carry heavy backpacks loaded with books. As one student shared, “With the laptop I am able to organize my notes in a folder for each class. My laptop has become my locker, my notebook, my library and my backpack. I can’t do without it.”

Hard Evidence
In addition to the qualitative information, early indicators measured in quantitative terms have provided positive momentum for the proof of concept.

At the high school level in Henrico, the share of fully accredited schools increased from 63 percent to 75 percent in the last year, and the number of graduates continuing their education rose 2.5 percent.

The most telling data, however, have been on the state’s Standards of Learning tests. In 11 core curriculur tests, students improved on nine, remained level on one and lost two points on another. The greatest one-year gains on the end-of-course tests came in the three history subjects, reading and writing—content areas where laptops were used the most. A 14-point increase in a course titled World History from 1000 and a whopping 20-point gain in U.S. history suggest the use of dynamic, current content accessed daily by laptop made a huge difference in student achievement in these areas. Couple the state test results with the lowest-ever dropout rate in Henrico’s history—1.52 percent—and even the greatest skeptics of one-to-one laptop use take another look.

The bottom line is that our children are ready. The world is moving forward and our purpose is to do everything possible to ensure our children will thrive in that future world with the experience they receive today. The future is now. Our children can’t wait.

Mark Edwards is superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools, P.O. Box 23120, Richmond, VA 23223. E-mail: maedward@henrico.k12.va.us. He acknowledges the help of Vicki Wilson, assistant superintendent for instruction; Patrick Kinlaw, director of staff development; Michael Smith, director of technology; and Lynn Thorpe, director of elementary education, on this article.