Adventures in Laptop Land

When you issue a computer to every student, be ready for every eventuality by GREGG G. MOWEN
A teary-eyed 8th grader sat in front of me in my office. “I’m not sure what happened to it,” she said sheepishly. “I just opened it up and it looked like that.”

I had no reason to doubt her story. She insisted she had followed the rules for using her just-out-of-the-package, school-issued laptop computer and yet the screen was now nothing more than an iridescent collage of colors. “My parents will not be happy with me,” she offered. For that matter, I wasn’t all that happy with her either.

Our middle school has invested well over $1 million in laptop technology for our 709 students since 2000. During the first few months, screen breakage was occurring for reasons we could not easily identify. Blatant carelessness is one thing, but these problems appeared to be happening in the course of normal use. Now we realize that “normal” to a 13-year-old is not the same as normal to an adult, and it is not uncommon for things to break in the hands of 13-year-olds, but we were concerned with how we could handle the $600 replacement cost per computer if this trend continued.

From that worrisome beginning, we adjusted our laptop rules a bit and the screen breakage declined. First, we found that it is important that only the laptop and charger be carried in the case. If students try to stuff textbooks and papers into their laptop case, pressure is placed on the screen and breakage may result. We discovered the wisdom of buying cases that have room only for the computer and charger—no extra pockets that tempt students to fill them with stuff.

We also instituted a “no touch” rule. The screens were not to be touched by students, even during cleaning. Some breakage occurred when students simply grabbed the LCD screen too firmly and other damage happened when students attempted to clean their screen by wiping it down with water.

Parent Training
During the initial planning stages for our wireless program, we conducted several parent training sessions. We discussed with parents the instructional and support uses of the software and the hardware capabilities. We conducted four sessions at different times of the day to accommodate parents’ work schedules. This contributed to excellent turnouts.

However, the focus of our meetings quickly shifted from instructional issues to who is responsible for replacement and repair costs of the equipment if it is broken by the student. Obviously, it is a bit staggering for a parent to realize that their 13-year-old child, who otherwise has trouble keeping his or her room uncluttered, is in custodial care of an $1,800 computer.

My answer to the parents was this: If the machine is damaged while in the care of the student, it is the responsibility of the student (or parent) to remedy the damage. Equipment failure would be the school’s responsibility. This rule has placed a burden on the administration to figure out if damage is due to equipment failure or lack of care. It is often difficult to determine.

One day a student returned his computer on a Monday morning with several melted keys. We assumed the student had placed the laptop too close to a heating source. The student and parent emphatically disagreed. This situation remained unsolved until we encountered other keyboards that apparently overheated. These computers were not shutting down properly at the end of the day. In fact, a program error had the machines continuously attempting to shut down without ever doing so. In addition, the fan malfunctioned, heating the keys beyond the melting point. Thus, we could cite a combination of software and hardware failure rather than student carelessness.

Damage Protection
Another unanticipated result of our parent meetings was that several families opted to withhold permission for their sons and daughters to bring the laptops home because of the financial burden they might bear if the machine was broken. After the first six months of the program, we purchased an extended warranty from the manufacturer that covered much of the repair costs. This extended warranty, while not cheap, has been money well-spent and has eased parent stress.

Also, we found that some homeowners’ policies cover loss or damage to laptop computers. However, since it is the property of the school district and not the student, it is not automatic that this insurance will cover damage to the school computer. It is best to have parents check with their policy holder to determine coverage.

We devised a color-coded system to help us identify which students had permission to take the laptop home for use in the evening and on weekends. With the hallways full at the end of the day and all laptops in the same black carrying case, it was virtually impossible to know who had the OK to tote their laptop home and who did not. We laminated the student’s name on a blue or red card, which was attached to the handle of the carrying case. The blue card represented the take-home group, while the red card indicated the equipment was to remain in the school. Staff could now know at a glance and from a distance if the student had parental permission.

Our laptops came with network cards that protruded about two inches from the side of the computer port. This proved to be a recurring problem that resulted in damage to the network cards and to the internal port pins whenever they would get bumped in the hallways during class changes. At $70 apiece for the cards, we reconfigured the computer cases after damage to several ports with additional padding to support the network cards. Students now could completely encase the computers in their bags when carrying them between classes. This reduced the damage somewhat. As we bought additional computers, we made certain that the network cards were completely internal, eliminating damage from casual contact.

The ability to insert floppy disks at home and return the computer for use on the school’s wireless network is a suspected source of computer virus infection. With this in mind, we opted to configure our computers without external drives. This reduces the risk of virus infection and enabled us to choose a second battery. With two batteries and a fully charged computer, students could operate all day without the need to charge their computer.

Also, the additional battery eliminated the space requirements and additional confusion of having 25 students plugging into electrical sockets during the day. Without the two batteries, we would have had considerable electrical upgrade needs in each classroom. While the additional battery was a bit more expensive than the floppy drive, the overall cost was less when compared to the classroom electrical modifications that would have been necessary.

Occasionally students still need to use a floppy drive. All teacher laptops have floppy drives. Thus, when a student needs to take work home or use another machine at school, he or she can save work to the network folder and the teacher can access it to save on a floppy disk. This takes additional teacher time, but it is well worth it as the risk of virus infection is drastically reduced.

Printing Demands
Our planning included setting aside some additional funding for necessary hardware repairs. We did not, however, understand the additional stress that would be placed on our printers.

Compounded by the absence of disk drives in the laptops, printing more than doubled. This meant we replaced laser printer cartridges twice as often and our paper usage skyrocketed. Before introducing laptops, we had two laser printers in each grade wing that easily handled all the printing needs of teachers and students. Because the large-volume printers were housed in classrooms, teachers would retrieve finished products from these classrooms during class change times to minimize interruptions.

With the addition of the laptops, class interruptions became more frequent, causing teachers to seek the removal of the shared printers from their rooms. To address this problem, we added a printer to each classroom at considerable expense. When paper usage more than doubled, we quickly instituted a rule that no student could print without teacher approval. This has reduced needless printing, but we continue to consume paper at almost double the rate of the pre-laptop days. When the next school year begins, we will add a request for one ream of white copy paper to all students’ beginning-of-the-year materials list.

Our planning with teachers concentrated on two things. First, what software did they want to use to support their curriculum and secondly, what strategies or technology skills did they need to learn to fully incorporate the use of laptops in their instructional delivery? Addressing both topics in advance benefited the teachers, but another issue arose after students began using the wireless network in class.

That issue was room configuration and two considerations rose above others. The first consideration was that laptops require additional classroom space. In addition to textbooks, paper and other items students need throughout the day, laptop computers take up the full top of a student’s desk. Classrooms needed additional shelving and storage areas to alleviate excessive clutter.

Also, slanted desktops are not conducive to laptop use. In fact, such desks tended to create an avalanche effect leading to the floor if the desk was left unattended. A simple trip to the pencil sharpener could cost a student a hefty repair or replacement sum if the computer tumbled onto the floor. Even in classrooms having level desktops, teachers and students complain of insufficient work space. Tables were preferred over individual desks, resulting in additional costs not envisioned in our planning.

The second consideration was room setup. Teachers who traditionally operated from the front of the room quickly realized that students could be off task surfing at inappropriate websites and teachers would not have a clue until a disruption occurred. Teachers began to reorganize their classrooms so that they could instruct from the rear of the room, placing all laptop screens within their line of vision.

No matter how much you plan or how closely you monitor computer usage, some students make poor choices and enter inappropriate websites. At first, we opted to impound the computer from the student for a period of time, usually two weeks. This proved to be a problem as teachers were planning for instruction using the computer as a required vehicle of the learning process. Students with impounded laptops fell behind and teachers had to come up with contingency plans for them.

In addressing this problem, one teacher came up with a piece of software that rendered the laptop unable to reach the Internet for a specified period of time while all other computer functions remained operable. Students with impounded laptops now had to do their research manually in the library while remaining responsible for completing assignments on time. This has proven to be a positive deterrent to entering undesirable websites so instruction can proceed with all students.

Teachers quickly realized that student keyboarding skills were weak. The hunt-and-peck method of typing seemed to be the rule so we began a keyboarding class in the 7th grade. Students would be pretested on keyboarding skills and those who did not demonstrate competency were assigned to this class, which was taught in the elective block for one quarter. We will move this class into the 6th-grade elective rotation, though one could argue it ought to be taught even earlier. We use a software program, Type to Learn, which has garnered strong teacher approval and student interest.

Subsiding Novelty
The primary mission of our wireless laptop program is to improve learning and student achievement. We want students to take their laptops home in the evening and use them. Initially, most did take the computers home after school. Once the novelty wore off, fewer did so. Teachers reported that those who used the laptops at home showed significant increases in the quality of their work, especially when the assignment included a PowerPoint presentation.

In today’s world where computers dominate our work and leisure time, it is only natural for students to use wireless technology as an instructional support. While some teachers were hesitant to begin this program, these same teachers now cannot envision life in the classroom without it. The costs were high, the unanticipated consequences numerous, the learning curve rapid and the benefits to instruction priceless.

Gregg Mowen, a former superintendent in Michigan and Wisconsin, is principal of D.C. Faith Middle School, 1375 Ingersoll St., Fort Benning, GA 31905. E-mail: gmowen@benning.odeDoDEA.edu