About 80 miles north of Montreal, nearly all the 7,000 students in Ron Canuel’s district have school-supplied laptop computers and take them home each night. When Canuel, the district’s director general, began disaster planning in case of an outbreak of bird flu, it seemed only natural to make the laptops a central piece of the strategy.
In that scenario, Eastern Townships School Board schools would likely be closed for an extended period to prevent bird-flu infection from spreading, but keeping students and teachers in touch would be critical, Canuel says.
“Those connections are so important,” he says. “In any societal crisis, we always look at ways to maintain the link between schoolchildren and their teachers.”
This past August, Canuel announced a loosely structured plan in which teachers in the Canadian district would contact students via the Internet and laptops, set up Web sites, and direct lessons from locations other than school buildings. “We wanted to keep it as simple as possible to allow a natural evolution between the student and teacher,” he says.
In the United States, school districts and states with one-to-one laptop programs are considering ways in which the portable computers can be used outside the norm of in-class lessons, such as when bad weather or other events force schools to close.
In Maine, for example, where a statewide initiative has put laptops in the hands of all 7th and 8th graders and their teachers, officials are examining how students might continue to do their work from home on snow days or in a time of crisis when schools might be shut down, says Bette Manchester, the director of special projects for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which oversees the state laptop program.
“I have had this discussion with people, asking them to think about the way these tools can continue to be used,” says Manchester. She spoke, coincidentally, on a December day when a heavy snowfall had forced schools to close throughout the state.
Manchester says, however, that a significant barrier in Maine to such reliance on laptops to keep education going is the lack of Internet access in some of the more rural areas.
As it is, many teachers there use their school laptops to check in on students on days that take the teachers out of their classrooms for professional development. “It’s not uncommon to be sitting at a conference with a teacher and see them communicating with a student with their laptop,” Manchester says.
‘A Feeling of Connection’
George J. Vensel, the director of technology for the 42,000-student Manatee County district, based in Bradenton, Fla., says his district has used laptops to keep students in the loop when they’ve been unable to attend classes. He recalls one homebound student who used a laptop to videoconference with his class a few times a week.
One-to-One Wiki for International Society for Technology in Education members http://sig1to1.iste.wikispaces.net
Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation www.aalf.org
K12 Computing Blueprint— Resources for One-to-One www.k12blueprint.com/k12/ blueprint/index.php
Maine Learns—Maine’s Online Learning Community www.mainelearns.org
One-to-One Information Resources (includes case studies) www.k12one2one.org
Pennsylvania State University’s Center for One-to-One Computing in Education http://1to1.ed.psu.edu/
Irving (Texas) Independent School District Site on One-to-One www.irvingisd.net/one2one/ documents.htm
Compiled by Pamela Livingston
“The chats with his class turned out to be really important to him, because he felt cut off from his classmates,” Vensel says. “He didn’t do it every day, but it was enough to give that student a feeling of connection.”
But using the district’s one-to-one computing initiative—which has about 6,000 laptops spread across 15 of the district’s schools—in a time of disaster might be unworkable, he says. In some schools, he notes, the students aren’t allowed to take the computers home, and in the aftermath of a hurricane, power could be out for an extended time. And because the laptop program is not districtwide, an emergency arrangement could raise concerns about equity, he points out, if some children could continue their studies away from school while others could not.
Still, he acknowledges, in a situation like that caused by Hurricane Katrina, in which students might not be able to physically return to school for a long time, laptops could help reinforce an important school-student connection.
“It would take some preparation,” Vensel says, “but when you think about the ramifications, it could be huge.”
Michelle R. Davis is the senior writer for Education Week’s Digital Directions.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as Learning Even When Schools Are Closed