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Making Laptops Part of the Classroom: Four Suggestions

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In response to recent calls for greater integration of technology in classroom curricula, I conducted a research project this spring that relied on the use of laptop computers with a 5th grade class at an urban public school in New York City. What I learned not only confirmed the need for such integration, but also highlighted the hurdles that even tech-savvy teachers face in providing it.

I designed the project in collaboration with the class’s teacher, and both of us rated ourselves competent users of technology. In the project design, students were to participate in historical-fiction book clubs, then, in response to their reading, each club would create a digital movie using PowerPoint. The school had wireless Internet access, but because of budget cuts, it had no technology teacher or computer lab. Instead, the administration relied on teachers to integrate technology in their classrooms, using only the school’s laptop carts. In other words, teachers in this school faced a situation common in many other urban public schools.

When we opened the two laptop carts, the teacher and I were dismayed by what we found. Out of 27 laptops, four were unusable for various reasons: damaged pixels, a wireless connection that didn’t work, a student-user configuration that couldn’t be opened, missing keys, and others. And then there was the software, which varied widely. While all the laptops had Microsoft Word 2003 and PowerPoint, for example, some had Pixie2, but others did not. Some were also cluttered with programs and files we thought might confuse students, and most had restrictions on Internet Explorer that prevented us from downloading certain files and software we needed for the project. Moreover, the configurations of the laptops did not allow them to read the new flashdrives we had purchased to store students’ work. On a few, the CD drive didn’t read the music or video clips students wanted to use.

Even as nontechnology people, the teacher and I were able to solve some of these problems. But we were stumped by others. We were able to bypass the restrictions on Internet Explorer, for example, by downloading Google Chrome on each laptop. We transferred Pixie2 software to each laptop, and we cleaned out nonessential programs and software that interfered with the project, and that other teachers were not using. We replaced the unreadable flashdrives with ones that the laptops were able to read.

But the problem-solving we did required well over eight hours of our time, and we still lacked the technical know-how to deal with the configuration problems. If the use of laptops for integrated projects raised so many time-consuming issues, we realized, it’s no wonder that teachers are reluctant to take up the classroom technology challenge. As the participating teacher told me, out of 14 pre-K-5 teachers at the school, only three (including herself) had computer-based projects with their classes this year. These were the three teachers who identified themselves as competent technology users.

So, schools without a technology person or a computer lab need some viable solutions to encourage classroom computer use. Here are four that my teacher colleague and I found important as we engaged in our research project.

First, administrators should make the integrated use of technology part of curriculum-mapping work. This would enable both horizontal and vertical planning, ensuring that students achieved the technology standards set by the state as they moved up the grades. Teachers would then have a better sense of who was using the laptops, when, and for what purposes, and could better formulate their own integration plans. Moreover, the teachers would then be able to collaborate more on projects, which would provide built-in support for technological problem-solving.

Second, administrators might issue a technology survey for staff members to fill out at the start of each school year. Based on the curriculum maps, the administrators could then determine what the teachers’ technology strengths and needs were. Which teachers are adept at PowerPoint, or iMovie, or Movie Maker? Who is comfortable with creating websites, using blogs with students, or posting on YouTube? Who knows how to use wikis or microblogging, or conduct multimedia research? Who might be able to provide in-house workshops? Whom might teachers turn to for specific needs? How might teachers be able to support one another with technology use? Administrators also could fit targeted workshops into their professional-development plans, and perhaps create a computer-support network among faculty members, by sharing information on their various competencies.

Third, teachers should do a dry run of the work required for each project on one of the school laptops, using the student-user site. This would be a good time for teachers to work collaboratively, and would also be a beneficial professional-development pursuit. They should make sure to save the work to the same type of flashdrive that the students will use. Based on this dry run, teachers should then take inventory of the problems they faced, the problem-solving they did, their software and hardware needs, and questions or concerns. It would be helpful if all the teachers used the same inventory form for this information. With these inventories, the school could have a district technology specialist come in for one full morning to configure and update all its laptops for the year’s projects across all grades.

Fourth, administrators might have a district technology specialist, or, if necessary, an outside technology consultant, on call for teachers. In our project, I was fortunate to have a technology person at my college I was able to consult, sometimes on the same day we encountered certain problems. I asked for this person’s help, for example, in creating a soundtrack for our digital movies, and he taught me how to download and use Audacity, a public-access sound-studio software. We then downloaded it to all the laptops and taught the 5th graders to use it.

As teachers implement their technology-based projects, they probably should apply the “ask three before you ask me” policy: If they are unable to solve the problem in-house after consulting with three other teachers who might have more expertise, then they can consult the technology specialist for solutions.

Making technology a well-integrated part of ongoing classroom work is imperative as we move further into the digital age. But as long as classroom teachers feel less than competent with technology, isolated in the use of the technology available in their schools, and worried about the daunting time demands required to solve technology-related problems, they will understandably avoid this necessary work.

But there are practical ways to deal with these problems, even in the face of budget cuts. And the time and energy expended will be well worth the effort. The future demands that all of our students master a rapidly unfolding set of 21st-century literacies. And that work belongs in the classroom.

Vol. 29, Issue 37

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