Engagement, Empowerment, Enthusiasm – Part One

(This is another post in a series of posts about 1:1 computing in the elementary school.)

The week before winter break I saw a “flurry” of activity with our netbook computers.  As I see teachers starting to feel more comfortable with 1:1 computing in their classrooms, I am  becoming more excited about the possibilities of using these machines each and every day in our classrooms.  Here are three examples of how netbooks were used in our school in December.

  1. In a second grade class, the students are studying map skills as part of a social studies unit.  They decided that we did not have a good map of our school for visitors to use, so the students asked if they could create a giant map to place in the lobby of the school.  The teacher, recognizing that some of the very best ideas come from the kids, readily agreed.  With a lot of behind the scenes planning with our technology coach, she worked with the students in her class to develop a large map that would include all of the mapping elements taught in class.  They used a plain, generic map of the building which they digitally scanned and placed in a shared folder so each student had access to it.  Then, working in teams of three or four students, they divided up the building into zones, with each team taking responsibility for a zone.  Using the scanned map and the netbooks, the students planned out what their zone would look like.  Much whole-class discussion took place to ensure that there were commonalities from zone to zone, and then the students created their large-scale sections.  When they return from break, they will start to assemble the sections into the large map of the school.  Interestingly, this project is an example of technology being used as one of many tools available to the second graders (along with crayons, markers, glue, and paper!).  The authenticity of this project engaged and empowered the kids to work hard on this project.
  2. In a fifth grade class, the students were interested in science careers, so, using the netbooks, the teacher sent the kids to hunch.com where they each took a survey to determine what science career would suit their interests.  Then, the students decided that they wanted to be scientists and research a topic within their career choice.  The teacher took the students through the entire scientific method process starting with a question to be answered, continuing with an experiment of some type,  and ending with some form of communication of the results.  Much of the work was done on the netbooks including the data collection and analysis.  This was another terrific example of authentic, student-generated work that fit perfectly with the fifth grade curriculum.
  3. In another fifth grade class, the teacher taught the students the “Socratic Circle” method for discussion something that the students read.  In this case, they were asked to read an article about the most interesting inventions of 2009.  They took notes on the article using Post-its.  The next day, they completed the Socratic Circle activity.  In the inner ring were the students who were discussing the article, and in the outer ring were the observers who were using the netbooks and a website called Etherpad.  This is a site that allows people to work on a shared document, similar to Google Docs.  The students in the outer circle held a quiet discussion on Etherpad in which they critiqued the participation of their peers in the inner circle.  Afterward, the Etherpad discussion was shared with the entire class providing valuable feedback to those in the inner circle.  A few days later, the two circles switched places.  This use of a terrific communication tool along with the netbook computers could (and should) be taking place all year if each child had a netbook on his or her desk at all times.

In all three of these examples, the technology did not supersede the instruction.  Instead, it enhanced the teaching and learning.  As I have said many times before, teaching the 21st Century skills is NOT about technology.  It is about authentic learning, self-directed learning,  problem solving and critical thinking skills, and collaborating with people.  The technology is but another tool used to reach the goal of developing 21st Century learners and workers.

Adults in the work world are using technology all day long to assist them in their productivity on the job.  The students should be doing the same, at school and at home.  Students who are provided with a laptop, who attend a school where the internet is open and available to use, and who are allowed to bring the laptop home,  have a distinct advantage over their peers who attend a more traditional school.

I will have some more thoughts on this topic soon…

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Flying Solo

(This is another post in a series of posts about 1:1 computing in the elementary school.)

I took over a fourth grade classroom the other day.  Just me and 22 fourth graders.  No classroom teacher, no technology director, no teacher’s aide.  Just me and the kids.

No big deal, right?  I have spent years in classrooms.  I was a fifth grade teacher for many years before becoming a principal.  So why write this post?

The difference is that I used the new Dell Latitude 2100 netbooks as part of my lesson.  The students in this class had maybe 45 minutes of introduction to and use of these mini-computers before it was my turn to teach with the machines.

I figured the only way for me to really understand the power of 1:1 computing in the classrooms was to plan and teach lessons that utilize a class set of netbooks.

For this lesson, I wanted to ensure that the netbooks were used as another tool for learning, and not as a special event, a time waster, or just for fun.  I wanted this lesson to be connected to the class’s daily work, and I wanted to show the students how the computers can assist them if used correctly.

My goal was to develop a reading lesson which focused on reading non-fiction material.  The students were in the middle of reading different books about such topics as volcanoes, the coral reef, and rain forest animals.  I wanted to pick up where they left off.

My objectives for the lesson were to teach and provide practice narrowing a search on the internet, using search engines other than Google, and comparing facts found in a non-fiction book to facts found on a website.  I started the lesson without distributing the computers.  Instead, each guided reading group met with their books to develop two guiding questions from the text.

Then, I spent about 15 minutes demonstrating how to narrow a search so we don’t end up with 5,000,000 sites on Google.  I was able to narrow my search from 5 milion down to 620.  Not too bad!

After distributing the netbooks, I had the students searching for answers to their questions using different search engines (Google, AltaVista, Yahoo, Answers.com).  There was no clear choice among the students regarding which was the best search engine, but those using Google seemed most comfortable.  I was pleased to see that the students were challenging themselves to narrow their searches to eliminate unnecessary sites.  This actually became a little competitive among them!  I also reminded the students to avoid “Sponsored Links” which are just web-commercials.

Finally, I asked the students to start looking at certain sites to find some answers.  I would have to say that this research experience was far less frustrating than I had experienced in the past.  The students were excited and engaged in looking for the best sites to help them, and they were actually reading the information that was presented.  As I walked around, I noticed that the sites they had found appeared to be legitimate and worthy of further study.  Most of the students agreed that the information on the websites was better than in their books.  Although the books we have are good, the kids liked the videos, pictures, and links on the websites.  They were more willing to extend their research on the computers verses in the books.

So, what did I learn from this experience?  First, as we all become more comfortable with the netbooks in classrooms, the easier it is becoming to distribute and collect them. I do envision a day when teachers are “flying solo” all day long with these computers.  Right now, most of the teachers want the safety net of another set of hands in the room.

Second, the students are becoming much more proficient at starting them up and shutting them down.  I am impressed with how quickly the students are taking to the concept of having information at their fingertips.  I hope to see the day when each child has a small computer on his desk all day long.  It would be a standard school supply, ready and waiting for him to access information and communicate with the world at any time during the school day.

Also, as I watched the students work on their machines, I started thinking back to my teaching days when we had a cart of clunker Apple laptops (c.1994) that lost power after an hour, and were good with word processing and spreadsheets, but not much else (remember saving to disks that were forever crashing?).  My fear, for now, is that teachers are going to use these machines with their students for typing stories and papers, instead of completing research and communicating with the rest of the world.

Keeping that from happening will be one of my biggest challenges as I work with teachers and students using netbooks.

Can 2nd Graders Use Netbooks? You Betcha!

I spent an hour in a second grade classroom, observing and assisting them with their first experience using the new Dell Latitutde 2100 netbooks.  The class was led by our school’s technology coach and the classroom teacher.

We explained to the students that bringing these computers into their classroom is like bringing the kids to the computer lab, and that the log-in process was exactly the same.  These younger students appeared much more apprehensive than the fifth graders I observed being introduced to the netbooks last week.  The older kids were really jazzed up about the machines, while these little ones seemed a little nervous.

I can understand their nerves, especially since most of them had never worked on a laptop before.   When we surveyed the class, we learned that the majority of their experiences on computers had been with desktops and mice.

The first challenge for the class was distributing the machines in an efficient, organized manner.  If this process takes too long then we are defeating one of the main purposes for 1:1 computing in the classroom:  Transparent, seamless computing and research embedded in the regular instruction of a lesson.

The students were called up to the cart by their “magic number” (their alpha number in class).  They were instructed to carry the netbooks back to their seats with two hands like a tray of food, and the were told not to open them.  I only saw one boy start to open his.  Otherwise, they were very good about following the directions.  At this point, I could start to sense the excitement building in the classroom.  Distributing the machines to all 21 students took six minutes.  Not bad!  It takes longer to walk the class to the computer lab and get everyone situated at a machine.

The key to the success of the initial launch of netbooks in the classroom, it appears, can be summed up in two words:  Organization and Simplicity.  The classroom teacher must develop an organized system for distributing, collecting, and charging.  Time cannot be wasted, or we will be defeating the purpose of using these computers in a classroom instead of a lab.

Keeping the directions very clear and simple also will help ensure the success of 1:1 computing in the classroom.  For this class, the students were instructed to remember four simple steps for logging on to the machines: 1.  Open; 2. Turn on; 3. Control, Alt, Delete 4.  Log on with the school password (which was written on the board).   We need to use the four step approach in every classroom and in every grade, and soon, the kids will have these four steps memorized .  Within a matter of a few lessons, the students will have this down pat, and they will be doing this completely on their own.  I watched 21 seven-year-olds logon for the first time, and it only took 10 minutes.  Eventually, this should take no more than two minutes.

The fact that most of the students had never worked on a laptop did not impact their ability to navigate around the machines.  I was amazed how well they took to it.  We did not train them on the use of the touchpad; the kids figured it out on their own.  By playing for just a moment, and by showing each other, they took to the pad quickly (digital natives in their comfort zone?).

The first part of this lesson on the use of the Dell netbooks with second graders was successful, and it got even better when we asked the students to open Kidspiration 2.  We instructed the kids on how to open a new project, insert new text bubbles, and type in the text bubbles.   Then, we taught them how to save their new projects in their student folders located on our district server.  Again, we made it as simple as possible, with the knowledge that the concept of saving on a school server can be complicated.  Finally, the students were able to quit and shut down without a problem.

I believe the potential for netbooks in the classrooms (even in primary classrooms) is great.  I can envision a time, maybe a month from now, where the students are able to independently use these machines at their desks without direct assistance from an adult.  I can envision a teacher working with a small group of students at the back table, while the rest of the students are successfully navigating around the netbooks, completing authentic projects that they can share with others (like Photostory, Voicethread, blogs, or wikis projects).

As we are quickly learning, the key to the success of these machines in classrooms is to establish a systematic, organized procedure for distributing and collecting the computers, and for teachers to very clearly articulate their directions in simple terms.

I can’t wait to get back into that same second grade classroom in a month to see the improvement the kids have made in using these machines independently!

The Dell Latitude 2100 – A Review

It is 6:30 in the morning, the school is very quiet, so I started this post.

The first action plan item in my technology goal was to learn about the netbook computer.   So I have decided to take one home to play with it.  I am not a “hardware guy.”  I am a teacher and school principal.  Consequently, this “review” of a computer will probably seem naive to anyone who knows his way around a motherboard.  That being said, I can professionally comment that, upon first inspection,  this new little computer is uber-cool!

That was my first reaction when I opened the laptop cart and saw 25 of these canary-yellow and black netbooks staring back at me.  They are very enticing.   That was the students’ reaction when they first saw the machines, too.  The kids were calling them bumble bee computers.

Our school district leaders chose the Dell after looking at and playing with most of the models on the market.  At first glance, it appears as if the Dell was a good choice.  It is covered in a colorful, protective rubber coating that seems perfect for younger children.

Later this day…

I have spent about an hour using the Dell at home, and I have created a list of Pros and Cons about this mini-machine.  I have tried to look at the netbook through the eyes of a teacher and a 5th grade student.  Here is what I think so far:

Pros:

  • The computer was very easy to transport home in my briefcase.  I think it would commute home with 10 and 11 year olds in a backpack without a problem.  I am not planning on sending these home with kids yet, but maybe one day…
  • I had no problem connecting to my home wireless system.  With some simple directions, we could teach students how to connect to the wireless.
  • I first went to my district email system and pounded out a few emails.  This was simple to do.
  • The MS Windows xp Professional software feels and works exactly the same as any other PC (I am not sure why that surprises me, but I was expecting a different look and feel).
  • I like the touch pad and buttons.  You can easily scroll up and down on the right side of the touch pad.
  • I took a couple of digital pictures with my camera.  Then, I connected the camera to the Dell with the camera’s USB wire.  A window immediately popped up and I was able to download the pics without a problem.  There was no need for any software.  This is great for students, and we plan on doing a lot with digital photography and these machines in the classrooms.
  • I also took a still picture with the built-in web-cam, and I saved it to the desktop.  That was simple, but earlier in the week I took a picture with the web-cam and was unable to upload it to a blog post.  That could be problematic, and I will need to work on that.
  • I closed the cover with the battery power at 64%.  (It was dinner time!)  I opened it an hour later and the battery power still registered at 64%.  Is it possible that the computer slept so soundly that it used no power?  Is that how all laptops are?
  • It does appear as if we will get about 6 hours of use which is fine in an elementary school.

In most areas of use, the Dell mini performed just like a regular laptop computer.  There are some areas, however, where I have some concerns.

Cons:

  • When I walked into the house with the bumble bee computer, my 12 year old was immediately attracted to it like a bee to a daisy.  But, she had just finished her math homework, and her hands were dirty from the pencil.  She left marks all over the yellow cover from her hands.  These marks were not so easy to clean off.  I wonder if we should have purchased solid black machines, and not bright, colorful computers.
  • The screen is just too small for my 47 year old eyes.  I tried typing this post on the Dell mini, but the WordPress post template is too small on this screen, and I could not read the words.  Will this be a problem for kids?  Maybe.  I had to switch over to my desktop to finish this post.  I will try to upload two pictures from the Dell later on in this post.
  • The keyboard is noticeably smaller, too, but I don’t think this will be a problem for children.  I kept hitting the wrong keys.  Eventually, I think I will get used to this size.
  • While I was working on the desktop, I had the netbook sleeping next to me.  When I went to wake it up, I discovered that it was in a coma.  The machine had locked up with a Windows xp message stating “Please wait…  Preparing to stand by…”  I was unable to wake it up using the keyboard, touch pad, or buttons.  This was a problem.  I needed to do a hard shut down.  This will not be good in the classroom.  It takes time to get back in, and if this happens in a classroom with 25 of these machines and one teacher, it will be very frustrating for everyone.

I did try the Dell again, but I had a hell of a hard time reading what I was writing, and I was unable to upload pictures from the desktop to this blog post.  I kept getting an “IO” error – whatever that means.  I had to add the pictures below from the desktop computer.

Aside from the small screen I feel very comfortable with this new netbook.  I think this will be an exciting new addition to our classrooms.  I now need to focus on helping teachers become comfortable with the mini-computers, and then work in classrooms with them.

This is the computer I borrowed from our new netbook cart.  Don't worry, I will return it.  Plus, it has LoJack, so I won't get far with it if I decide to leave town!!

This is the computer I borrowed from our new netbook cart. Don't worry, I will return it. Plus, it has LoJack, so I won't get far with it if I decide to leave town!!

The machine feels solid, and it will be a nice addition to our classrooms.

The machine feels solid, and it will be a nice addition to our classrooms.

More About the Use of Cell Phones in Schools

I have written numerous posts about the use of cell phones in school for educational purposes, and I continue to search for others who have written on the same topic.  Here is a great article which states the many reasons for allowing students to use cell phones and other handheld electronic devices (such as iPods) in classrooms.

Think Before You Ban: A Handheld Is a Powerful Learning Tool

According to By Bob Longo of TechNewsWorld,

“… looking at the world outside of education, everyone is using their cell phone to do many things they used to do exclusively on their computers. Much of this is informational and productivity related. Furthermore, cell phones or other PDAs are very cost effective and significantly more portable. Schools that cannot afford to deploy a 1:1 laptop initiative could achieve a 1:1 with a mix of laptops and lower-cost portable devices like an iPod touch.

Part of the solution, I believe, is not to ban enabling technologies that possess great value in the learning environment, but rather manage the risks that may surface in the same way we manage all risks to our children. Some of this can be done with technology, some with education and some with policy and supervision. We don’t prohibit playing in the schoolyard because it borders a street; we put up a fence, we add a supervisor and we instruct the children not to run after a ball that goes into the street. Similarly, with well-constructed software learning environments, we can provide teachers with management tools to protect our students; we can access Web 2.0 technologies and push value to our children and at the same time provide a safe and secure learning space for them to explore and prepare for the excitement of the technology-rich world they live in.”

I hope you will read this article and pass it along to other educators.

Scrap the Lab. It Doesn’t Compute.

(Cross-posted on LeaderTalk.)

A few days ago, Scott McLeod, on his Dangerously Irrelevant blog, asked his readers to share what they think are the best designs for a computer lab.  As I was thinking about this and formulating a comment to write on this post, I received the Sept/Oct 2008 edition of Scholastic’s “Administrator” Magazine.  Have you seen it yet?  The cover story is titled “One Laptop, One Child.” After reading this article, I realized why I was having so much trouble formulating a new, better design for a computer lab.  I have come to believe that the best design is no design at all.  I would argue that we should be scrapping the traditional computer lab with 25 or 30 desktop machines that are networked to a couple of printers housed in one room in a school.  This has become an outdated use of our schools’ very tight technology budgets.

Why?  Because if our goal is to integrate technology into all aspects of the curriculum (well, that’s my goal, anyway), then a computer lab that is shared by all of the classes in a school is not sufficient to accomplish that goal.  The typical use of a school’s lab is for the teachers to sign up for a weekly time to bring their classes in to work on the computers. I am talking about elementary school teachers.  However, middle and high schools schedule students into computer classes in labs, and the same dicsonnect takes place. When it is “computer time” the teachers will end a reading or math lesson, march the students to the lab, and assign some type of word processing or PowerPoint activity to accomplish during the 40 minute period.  Then, it’s back to class to continue working on other lessons.  Effective, meaningful technology integration is much more difficult in this type of system.

Instead, we need to equip each classroom with a bank of six, eight, even ten or more laptop computers.  These machines would be available for students all day, every day, and teachers could plan lessons to include technology throughout the day.  Additionally, classrooms should be equipped with document cameras, LCD projectors, and interactive white boards.  This classroom-based technology will open up the classroom to the entire world, and instead of the standard teacher demonstration station, students will have much more hands-on experiences with technology.  They will be doing, not just watching how technology can be utilized for learning.

With a bank of laptops in a classroom, students can work independently or in groups on projects that connect them to others.  For example, imagine a literature circle discussion taking place among students in New York and San Diego via Skype.  Or, imagine a science experiment conducted with students in Chicago and Seattle.  How about a debate between students in Boston and London? Should they have thrown the tea overboard, or not?  Debate!  The students will learn more from each other than they would from their own classmates (and maybe from their teachers).  Sure, this can be accomplished in a computer lab on the other side of the school, but time would be the enemy, and the ability to extend the learning past 40 minutes would not exist.

Taking this a step further, imagine if every student had a laptop computer on his or her desk.  As Wayne D’orio argues in his Administrator article, a well-run 1:1 computing program is one where many more students have the “access to technology and use the tools in meaningful ways.” This should be a goal for every school.

It is instilling the idea that teachers will no longer be the dominant information delivery for each class.  If a school goes 1:1 but the students use the computers only as a better way of taking notes, the whole experiment will fail.

D’orio goes on to explain that “If used correctly, computers in more hands can help speed schools along the path to 21st century learning.”  Students need to collaborate with others throughout the day and week, similar to what their parents are doing in the world of work.

The first and most obvious criticism of 1:1 computing in schools is cost, and I would agree.  However, there are computers now on the market that cost less than $500 and would serve the needs of most elementary and middle school students.  HP has one.  So does ASUS.  So does MPC (this looks like a cool one for kids).  And more are coming on to the market.  There also is Thin Client software and products like the X300 Terminal from NComputing that create access terminals without bulky computers in classrooms.

One final point is that we need to allow students to bring in their own laptops for use in classrooms.  I can hear the school district IT people screaming at me for this one!  “There is no way we will let kids connect to our network.  It’s not safe for the network or for them.” To that, I say “let it go!”  Let the educators teach the students the correct way to use the network, go ahead and scan their machines for viruses, and purchase classroom management software that allows teachers control of the machines if necessary to push out lessons or block inappropriate material.

Of course, this may become a moot point when the next generation of smart cell phones takes over the computing world.  One cell phone, one child?  Picture that in your classrooms.