Special Report
Ed-Tech Policy

For Teachers, Wired Classrooms Pose New Management Concerns

By Liana Loewus — October 14, 2013 9 min read
Students at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in the District of Columbia put laptops away after class.
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In a growing number of K-12 schools, the use of 1-to-1 computing devices—including iPads, laptops, and Chromebooks—is becoming a central part of instruction. For teachers making the digital leap, one of the greatest hurdles can be figuring out how to manage the tech-infused classroom. How do you keep kids, who suddenly have the Internet at their fingertips, on task? How do you ensure the devices are safe and well-maintained? And how do you compete with your most tech-savvy students?

“I think this is the new frontier frankly with classroom management. We’ve never confronted this,” said Kyle Redford, a 5th grade teacher at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif.

Redford’s school introduced iPads in the middle grades three years ago. “I think we were a little wide-eyed and naïve initially. We were letting students guide the exploration into technology,” she said.

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Since then, she and her colleagues have had detailed discussions about expectations and appropriate use. “Everyone really does need to have these conversations because these tensions are real,” she said.

For many teachers, decisions about how to manage the 1-to-1 classroom stem from conversations they have with more experienced peers and, of course, from trial and error. And as more schools introduce personal devices into the classroom, some common solutions to the attendant management problems are emerging.

Wander the Room

While district firewalls and pre-loaded applications are certainly helpful in keeping kids on task, they are far from foolproof. Educators generally need to take additional measures to prevent students from straying.

Perhaps the most stringent guidance Redford’s school has come up with, for example, is that when students are on digital devices, teachers must walk around the classroom. “The siren call of technology and its bells and whistles is just too powerful for kids,” said Redford. “If they know we’re moving around the room they’re much less likely to wander down the path of distraction. We are literally doing laps around the room.”

Sherly Chavarria, a 5th grade teacher at National Teachers Academy, a public school in Chicago, noted that iPads can be a bit easier to monitor than laptops because they lay flat on the desk. When her school began using Chromebook laptops last year, “I had to keep walking back and forth to make sure they weren’t clicking tabs,” she said. “At moments too many students were off task in too short a time, so I took the Chromebooks away for a week. We had conversations about how tools are there to support our learning, not distract our learning.”

Christine Taylor, instruction technology liaison at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, updates software on laptops during a 6th grade STEM Literacy class.

This year, she’s piloting Hapara for her school, a computer dashboard that, among other things, allows her to see all of her students’ desktops at once and open and close tabs on their computers from afar.

At Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, or MS2, a charter school in the District of Columbia, this kind of remote desktop software is a critical component of instruction. The 300 students at the school, which receives financial support from nearby Howard University, all have laptops both at home and in each of their classrooms. During a recent class, Wesley Ellis, an 8th grade social studies teacher, used the desktop program to keep an eye on students’ work as they annotated a National Geographic video at their own pace. “After the first month or two, it’s so easy” to have kids working independently on the laptops, he said. “They know the expectations.”

Create a Sense of Value

One of the best ways to keep devices in good condition, teachers seem to agree, is by creating a sense of value around them. Christine Taylor, MS2’s instructional technology liaison and Spanish teacher, said she began the school year by making sure “the students understood what a privilege it was to have a classroom laptop and that not all schools had that.” She added, “This goes for anything—if the teacher makes it important then it becomes important to the students.”

In rolling out the Chromebooks, Chavarria talked to her classes about “what it means to be early adopters and tech pioneers. It creates a sense of pride in students.” She also developed specific lesson plans around maintenance and care since Chromebooks are “easily damaged,” she said. “I did a whole lesson on how to carry them, open them, how to turn them to show a partner. I can hold students accountable if I taught them how to do it.”

In her first year of using Chromebooks, Chavarria said, two screens broke. Now, she keeps a broken device to show to her classes. “We role-play the scenario exactly as it happened—a student was excited to show another student and grabbed it by the screen and turned it,” she said. “We talk about how to show it to another student.”

Another management practice common to many tech-infused classrooms is ensuring that students receive the same device every day. Chavarria said that each Chromebook and each desk in her classroom have a number, and students’ assigned computers do not change.

Rebecca Christian, a 6th grade teacher at MS2, numbers her computers as well and holds her students accountable for their particular laptop’s upkeep. “They know, as soon as you turn it on, if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got to let a teacher know. Otherwise, you’re assumed responsible,” she said.

Taylor encourages teachers to keep track of which computers are out for repairs as well, and who has what computer in the meantime. For her, this system “increased the level of student responsibility. I knew that if a key was flicked off the computer, I could easily trace it back to who had been on that computer that day.”

MS2 also keeps its devices—and middle schoolers—safe by forbidding students from transporting laptops. Students keep the personal Macbooks they’re issued at home for homework and use the classroom laptops while at school. If a home laptop “needs to be serviced, a parent must bring that laptop in,” said Taylor. “In D.C., most students take public transportation, so in order to maintain safety for them, we don’t want them to carry it for service.” This also prevents mishaps in which the laptops are dropped or damaged en route.

At Redford’s school, students receive personal iPads in 5th grade but cannot begin taking them home until 6th grade. The graduated responsibility allows students to “get good at taking care of their iPads,” she said.

Officials in the Los Angeles school district, which conducted a mass iPad rollout this year, discovered the risks of allowing students to take devices off campus the hard way, when 71 iPads went missing and 300 students hacked through security filters once outside the district firewall. Superintendent John Deasy has since put a moratorium on letting students transport the devices.

Putting Students in Charge

Appointing a student technology monitor can also ease logistical issues. In Chavarria’s classroom, she said, “There are two students who pass [the Chromebooks] out in the morning. There’s no conversation about it. It’s the same with pickup.”

Robert Pronovost, the STEM coordinator for the Ravenswood City school district, said that putting maintenance tasks in the hands of students was one of the biggest changes “from the beginning to where I felt successful” implementing 1-to-1 devices. “Going from me being responsible for getting everything charged every night to having the tech monitor going back and checking to make sure everything is plugged in and in the right place” made an enormous difference, he said. “It’s the small things the tech monitor does, like jiggling plugs that hadn’t gotten plugged in all the way.”

Most teachers have a cart or cabinet that can charge a classful of laptops or iPads overnight, often a key resource because classrooms tend to lack outlets. Even with the carts, however, teachers will inevitably be faced with devices running out of battery power during a lesson at some point, so having set procedures for such situations is important. At MS2, Christian’s 6th graders know to head toward a charging station at the back of the room if their laptop dies.

ames Harris, a 6th grader at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, carefully wraps his headphone chord after class.

According to Krista Moroder, the K-12 technology integrator for the 4,300-student Kettle Moraine school district in Wales, Wis., it’s important to have charging stations and a “classroom design where cords aren’t being tripped over.” Flexible seating, in which students are allowed to move with their devices as needed, can be helpful in solving this problem, she explained.

Like electrical cords, headphones can also pose problems. In Ellis’ classroom at MS2, students return headphones to their original plastic packaging after each use, which both serves as protection and keeps the wires out of the way. Pronovost said he’s tried a variety of systems for keeping headphones safe and untangled, including having students wrap them around their iPods and putting them in their desks around a small piece of cardboard. He eventually settled on having kids hang headphones “on the wall with a hook with every student’s name.”

Teach Tech Terms

Many teachers with classroom laptops find it helpful to differentiate between words like “closed” and “signed out,” and to be clear about what state the computer should be in at any given moment. “If I’m going to do brief direct instruction, I tell them to close the Chromebooks,” said Chavarria, meaning they should fold the tops down. “They only have it open if we’re doing a task they need to follow. ... They know the difference between closing and signing out.”

In Ellis’ room recently, one student scolded another for closing the screen rather than signing out during a question-and-answer session after the video. “He said shut it down,” 13-year-old Stephon Greene reminded his classmate.

Teachers seem to agree that another key to managing the digital classroom—akin to having an organized system for passing out papers—is using cloud tools to share documents. Programs like Google Drive, Evernote, and Dropbox allow teachers to put an assignment or instructions in every student’s folder at once. Cloud tools also let teachers “track student work from the time they start to the time finish,” said Wisconsin school technology integrator Moroder. “And having 24/7 access makes it easier because you know whether or not students are focused.”

As in any classroom setting, the thorniest management problems often arise from the cleverest students. Instead of trying to restrain these students’ efforts, many teachers recommend harnessing their know-how and curiosity. “Our biggest tech-savvy kid, he was cracking codes on passwords and getting into all kinds of trouble,” said Redford. So the technology department “hired him for the summer to explore every crack in our system and expose it and they paid him. He was able to identify and come up with solutions.”

Pronovost takes the idea a step further and has students “who really understand how technology is supposed to be used” create videos of themselves demonstrating tech tools. He then puts the instructional video in a shared Dropbox folder so students can return to it at any time. This not only prevents him from having to re-explain the technology but it also empowers students and “adds to the shared ownership,” he said.

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