Making the Most of Laptops in the Classroom
High School Special Education
teacher Erin Foley never thought she would see a cow in her suburban classroom,
but that's how the laptop program in her school was introduced. Computers
On Wheels, or COWs, as they are more commonly called, are increasingly
appearing in school districts across the nation, much as PCs multiplied
in the early 1990s.
A mobile lab of 35 laptops debuted last fall at Erin's
school - a mid-size high school located ten miles outside of Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. As she and her colleagues prepared to incorporate the laptops
into their planning and instruction, students eagerly anticipated using
the new learning tools.
Scenes like this are being played out across the
country this very moment as laptops become more and more a part of the
Teaching with technology can be a daunting task,
especially if you are faced with new equipment, new platforms, new protocols,
and other technical challenges. Daniel Ledford, principal of Archbishop
Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, says that "learning never
stops for teachers," especially where technology is concerned. His
staff of 60 began learning together seven years ago when they all received
laptops at the beginning of an on-going technology project. The goal was
not to make technology the centerpiece, but rather to have it so integrated
that it is "in the background," Ledford remarks.
Now all 950 students and their teachers are more
than comfortable with the laptops. And, of the initial risk, Ledford notes
that it is "one well worth taking." As a result of the laptop
implementation, his teachers are moving toward "new methodologies"
in their instruction. This includes a change to 90-minute blocks from
the more traditional 40- to 50-minute class period, along with creating
more curriculum materials on their own.
Although it was a "lot of work finding non-textbook
materials," Ledford says the excitement of his teachers was a big
help during these changes.
How did all this happen? Assuredly not overnight
The teachers had their equipment and training well in advance of the students.
This gave them time to get familiar with the applications and software
and get a jump on planning lessons that incorporated the laptops. Although
you may not have the luxury of this much time, training is one way to
help you teach with technology.
Training is the key to success
Ideally training should take place over a span of time to allow for practice
and application of one skill before moving on to a new skill area. Spreading
out learning also allows for peer groups to share successes and failures,
thus increasing the amount of real knowledge and decreasing the risk factor
that comes when applying newly acquired knowledge.
Also, training should be tiered to meet a range of
the learner's needs. Starting with the basics - getting to know your machine
and the software on it - and then leading up to more integration related
activities is a logical progression.
Do It Yourself Training
If your school is shy in the training department, here are some ideas
from other teachers to help get you started.
- Form your own "Laptop Support Group."
Ask around and you are sure to find others who feel as though they could
use some help. Arrange to meet monthly or bi-monthly for an hour after
school and have each person take a turn facilitating. The facilitator
is responsible for teaching a new skill to the others in the group.
At first, it may be helpful to take an informal poll of things that
each person might like to learn by participating in the group. Topics
may range from email basics to presentation software.
- Volunteer to help your school or district technology
You can put together a notebook of "cheat sheets" for teachers
that can be kept in the library or teacher's lounge. The notebook can
be organized according to software product or hardware issue. It might
include materials such as lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs),
troubleshooting procedures, and tutorials for common software programs
like MS Office. Better yet, compile the materials in digital format
and either upload them to a common web site or make them available on
CD. You are sure to learn a lot in the process of compiling the materials.
- Find a buddy to work with.
Sharing a task can make it more enjoyable and enrich your sense of learning,
as most adult learners actually prefer to work in groups. You and your
computer buddy can help one another set and reach laptop learning goals
as well as share lesson plans that work.
- Track your progress with a calendar.
Setting time aside for your own learning and practice is a key to any
new endeavor. Choose a topic each month and carve out a few minutes
each day to read, practice, and apply. Using a calendar allows you to
control the pacing of your learning and also gives a good visual of
what you have accomplished over time.
- Sign up for product training online.
Many companies offer free modules of instruction at their Web sites.
You can also search the Web for tutorials that other teachers have created.
Take advantage of these yourself or use them in class as a whole group
activity, especially for an unfamiliar program.
Training is not just for teachers
Your students may need help with the basics, like organizing homework
and work-in-progress files. Ms. Foley found that her students were familiar
with PowerPoint and Word, but were losing files because they "did
not know were they had saved them." She began the winter semester
with a lesson on naming, saving, and organizing files.
"I had to teach them a logical way to save homework
so that it wouldn't get lost. It tied right in to my lesson on taking
notes. And, of course, my kids really need that!" she commented with
Another path toward integration is to learn right
alongside your students. Explain to them that you are trying out a new
piece of software and they will need to learn to use it for an upcoming
Take a class period to go over the features with
the help of a projector or LCD panel. While doing this walk-through, have
at least a few "bells and whistles" in mind that you will show
and then casually ask if anyone has anything to add. It is likely that
one or more of your students have used the program before. This presents
an opportunity for sharing and discussion as you all learn. Have someone
assigned as note-taker so you can retrace your steps later.
According to Phil Kalloch, District Information Specialist
at Scarborough Middle School in Scarborough, Maine, it is more important
to "master the pedagogy" and not necessarily all the skills
that come with using laptops in the classroom. He witnessed a shift in
the veteran teachers who were "terrifed" at first, but soon
began learning with the help of their students.
"The teachers were intimidated"
by the technology itself, but once they focused on "designing the
learning environment," things came more easily, observed Kalloch.
His district is part of an on-going, statewide initiative to get laptops
into the hands of all middle-schoolers. They are heading into their third
year of the project.
How laptops are transforming the classroom experience
Teachers interviewed for this article commented that laptops are changing
not only the delivery of information, but also the quality of information
At Scarborough Middle School, the teachers involved
in the laptop implementation began by having students use the Internet
for research. According to Kalloch, they quickly learned that "research
must be more focused than a general search." This led them to using
Webquests and also pre-selecting Web sites for student use.
There was a "shift from remembering information"
to learning how to "find and use information," Kalloch observed.
Students and teachers alike needed to learn to evaluate websites for content.
Teachers noted the move from lecture to a more dynamic,
interactive environment was helped by laptops and presentation software.
They were able to have students work more independently on individual
or small group assignments, such as locating primary sources for research
and then writing about them.
The use of tutorials and online simulations also
extends the reach of activities in a classroom. This supports the constructivist
model of student-guided inquiry or Project-Based Learning that goes so
well with the use of technology. PBL also fosters collaboration and communication.
Kalloch noticed that students in his school were
using "Ask an Expert" type sites for information gathering.
They then moved to private conversations on their internal network and
began "sharing and processing the information" together.
Collaboration among teachers has also increased as
a result of Best Practice Technology Academies held each June.
The next steps
As the new school year gets underway, there are likely to be countless
opportunities to bring technology into your teaching practice. Challenge
yourself to incorporate one new idea this semester. Take on a WebQuest
or ask an expert online for information in your field. You may find yourself
and your classroom invigorated with new ideas and energy.
This article was contributed by author Maureen
Martin, an educational technology consultant and a former elementary school
teacher. She has trained thousands of teachers in technology best practices
and presents at state and national education conferences.