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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Classroom Technology Opinion

Some Teachers Are New to Laptop Integration. Here’s How to Manage It

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 13, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Many teachers will now be teaching for the first time in the physical classroom with students who have laptops every day. What are your suggestions for how teachers incorporate them in lessons and what classroom-management guidelines should govern how and when they are used?

Part One featured suggestions from Anabel Gonzalez, Michelle Makus Shory, Ashley Kearney, and Cindy Garcia. Anabel, Michelle, and Ashley were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Ruth Okoye, Jennifer Orr, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., Joshua Tabor, and Stepan Mekhitarian share their recommendations.

‘Keep the Learning Authentic’

Ruth Okoye is the K-12 director at The Source for Learning. She has over 30 years of experience as a reading teacher, CTE teacher, literacy coach, and district-level ed-tech coach:

First, teachers should get comfortable with the fact that they will make mistakes. The first time you do anything, you don’t do it perfectly. The beginning of the year is a perfect time to establish routines and procedures for laptops as well as other instructional materials. Students should help establish the processes and procedures, so they can buy into them and help reinforce them.

Pace yourself. While teachers who are experienced in teaching in 1:1 situations may be able to manage students having free access to the technology at any time, it’s probably not where they started. Feel free to establish times when students should have laptops out and when they should not. This allows you to plan for the technology-integrated portions of your lesson and to know that if things go awry, the entire lesson isn’t lost. Set a goal and challenge yourself to use the laptops for a portion of each lesson a few times a week at first. As you build your skill and confidence with using the technology, you can add more days per week and/or longer activities.

Make the students your allies. Acknowledge that you are learning—probably along with them—and engage them in helping each other. Establish a system that allows students to ask for help without interrupting the rest of the class. Students who have demonstrated proficiency can be part of your “tech squad” tasked with helping others who may be struggling or even helping you. Be sure to get feedback from the students on what works or doesn’t when you try a new technology integrated activity.

Keep the learning authentic. Research tells us that technology works best in the classroom when students use it to complete authentic work tasks. Yes, there is a place for review games and automated quizzes, but if you want to create an environment ripe for deep learning, you need to go beyond those types of activities. Think of how students will need to use technology in college and in the workforce and use those types of activities: research, communication, data analysis, presentations, etc. Help them begin to learn to do those tasks now while you can provide scaffolding by way of templates and structured activities.

You need to learn, too. Teaching with laptops is very different from using one yourself. If your school or district offers training, be sure to take advantage of it. If no training is offered, find some places to take free workshops on using the tools already in use at your school. There are a number of people and organizations that offer them and are invested in making sure teachers can make the best of this opportunity. Be careful to not spread yourself thin by trying to learn about all the tools at once. Get proficient with one tool at a time and find a way to share what you learn with your peers to create a learning community. It will help if you travel this new road with a few friends.


Making Connections

Jennifer Orr is in her third decade of teaching elementary school students in the suburbs of Washington. She is a national-board-certified teacher, mom to two teenagers, and an obsessive reader of books of all kinds:

As an early-childhood educator who has had a passion for technology for many years, this is a question I have spent a lot of timing considering. The answer may look very different depending on the age of your students, of course.

With our youngest learners, it is important to me that any screen time I am requiring of them is immensely valuable. Children are spending a lot of time with screens, and, for all of my love of technology, I have concerns about that. So this is a question I take very seriously.

I believe we should be using laptops when they offer us the opportunity to do things we would otherwise be unable to do. Throughout the pandemic, laptops and the internet made it possible for us to continue teaching and learning together in virtual classrooms. That would have been impossible without the technology. In a physical classroom together, I think we must be careful not to replicate what we did in our virtual year, at least not without careful consideration.

One of the things laptops offer is the ability to connect with others. This might be in very specific ways, such as having email pen pals or video calls with students in another part of the country or the world. Several years ago, when I was teaching 1st graders, we partnered up with a class in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Throughout the year, we had many whole-class video calls, individual video calls, and opportunities to write to each other. I’ll never forget, in the spring, when the other teacher and I took our students outside for recess with our devices and the kids were astounded at the difference. My students were in shorts and T-shirts, and her students zipped up their snowsuits as they still had significant snow on the ground. I’ve never had 1st graders more clearly understand the differences that geography can make.

Other connections might be broader. Students can post their writing or art creations online to share with others. They can comment on each other’s work. We have a class blog. At the start of the year, I post pictures and information about what we’re doing at school. As the year continues, students are able to create the posts for their families to see. Laptops offer children an opportunity for a broader audience for their work. Knowing that someone beyond their teacher will read their stories or essays or see their art or hear their performance is highly motivating. Students invest more energy and effort into their work.

My guiding question, when it comes to laptop use in elementary school, is: Am I replicating what I would normally do or are we doing something new, something we can’t do without this device? It is easy for me to fall into the trap of turning worksheets into digital activities, just for the novelty the laptop brings. After the past year, my guess is that novelty will not be as significant, making my goal that much more important to me. We’ll use our laptops to connect, to share, to encourage, to code, and to discover.


‘New & Exciting Content’

Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., is a former teacher holding K-12 instructional certifications in technology education, instructional technology, special education, elementary education, and computers, business, and information technology. She is the co-author of Increasing Engagement in Online Learning, Teaching the 4Cs with Technology, and the author of the forthcoming book, Leveraging Digital Tools to Assess Student Learning:

Laptops are not new to physical classrooms. For the past 10 years or so prior to the recent pandemic, one-to-one and byod (bring your own device) programs were emerging and becoming very popular in many K-12 schools. The availability of laptops for all students, in even more schools, provides a tremendous opportunity for teachers to transform curriculum, instruction, and assessment in their classrooms. As teachers incorporate laptops into lessons, they should leverage some of the best practices from schools that have had one-to-one programs already for years. Here are guidelines for successful one-to-to computer programs that Education Week covered several years ago.

With each student in the classroom having a laptop, teachers can bring in new and exciting content that would not be otherwise possible. Ditch the reliance on textbook pictures or even YouTube videos of cultural artifacts and landmarks around the world. Take advantage of free immersive content through Google Arts and Culture. Take students on virtual field trips to different museums around the world such as the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and even the Smithsonian museums in Washington.

Use the laptops for game-based formative assessment, which will allow you to capture data in real-time while the students are not even aware that they are being assessed. Kahoot, Gimkit, and Jeopardy Labs are just a few ed-tech tools that can be used for game-based assessment. Since you are capturing data on student learning during class time, adjustments to the lesson can be made immediately, and learning gaps can be quickly identified. In science classes, each student can immerse themselves in virtual simulations and labs through websites such as PhET and Labster. Peers can collaborate on shared projects, and online content can be collectively curated using a tool such as Wakelet.

While the thought of students having access to a laptop during the school day can be frightening to teachers, as long as you plan for intentional technology use in the classroom that is not only aligned with curriculum, instruction, and assessment but also interesting, engaging, and fun, students will not have the time to wander off on the internet as they will be engaged in the learning experiences at hand. Having said this, it is always good practice to have guidelines and acceptable-use policies for safe use of ed-tech that students should be aware of, sign off on, and follow in their everyday use of their laptops in school.


‘Don’t Forget to Have Fun!’

Joshua Tabor is a digital learning specialist in Denton ISD and an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas:

Let me start by saying, technology is not always the answer. Just because students have a device does not mean it must be used every day. Technology use should be woven through your curriculum when it fits, not forced in just because it is available.

Classroom management will be the key to success of having devices in the classroom. You should determine how you expect students to behave when their devices are active and what they should do when they are not needed. If you allow students to type notes while you are teaching, what are your expectations? What do you expect when they are working independently on their devices? Answering these questions will set you on your management path. I would also advocate you allow your students to help set expectations, as this will create buy in.

When using technology, do not fall into the trap of thinking students know how to use their device for productive purposes. You must help them find their way, just as you would with any other classroom tool. I would encourage giving grace because some students struggle with this amount of freedom. For some teachers, their initial reaction to technology misbehavior is to remove the device, but think of it like this: If you catch a student passing a note, you wouldn’t take all their paper because they need it to complete their work. Why would you then do that with technology when the same is true?

When planning your lessons, make sure to set your learning standards FIRST, then determine what technology helps your students the most. Tools such as Flipgrid, Nearpod, Google, Microsoft, etc., are great, but if your students do not understand what they are supposed to learn and why, the tools are irrelevant. Never let the technology overpower your lesson.

When incorporating your technology tool, know how it works from both your perspective and your students’. One of the biggest issues that trip up teachers is when their students cannot log in to a tool or use it with their chosen device. For example, if your students are using Chromebooks, make sure the tool you want is functional with that device. If it is not, find an alternative.

Ultimately, do not be afraid to try new things, make mistakes, and make changes. Let your students be your partners in this new journey and don’t forget to have fun!


Focus on ‘Learning Over Monitoring’

Stepan Mekhitarian serves as the interim director of innovation, instruction, assessment, and accountability at Glendale Unified school district in California. His book, The Essential Blended Learning PD Planner: Where Classroom Practice Meets Distance Learning, is available now from Corwin Press:

To plan how we will use devices in the physical classroom, we need to think about how they were used in distance learning. For over a year, devices were an essential tool to access lessons and communicate with teachers and peers. With the transition to in-person instruction, the role of devices can shift from a logistical necessity to a resource to enhance learning through individualized differentiation, collaborative higher-order-thinking projects, and learning opportunities that cater to different learning modalities.

  • Individualized differentiation. This is arguably the greatest benefit of instructional technology. When used effectively, devices can offer differentiated supports, customized learning opportunities, and opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery through a variety of approaches. Consider how you will incorporate these experiences into your in-person lessons using devices and how you will measure student success when it is presented in varied ways.
  • Collaborative higher-order-thinking projects. Devices create unlimited possibilities for research and collaboration, offering access to rigorous project-based-learning opportunities that involve exploration, meaning-making, and analysis. Maximize their use by raising expectations for deeper discovery and providing supports for students to meet and exceed them. Utilize devices the way you would other resources such as textbooks, referring to them as needed; discussions and collaboration can take place in person. Devices should be used to enhance learning, not as a primary source of communication as they were during distance learning.
  • Learning opportunities that cater to different learning modalities. Use devices in conjunction with in-person learning to support a variety of learning modalities to maximize learning. Auditory and visual learning can be enhanced through instructional technology while in-person strategies can serve kinesthetic and tactile learners. In a blended learning classroom, teaching strategies for learners can be employed to ensure access and success for all students.

Classroom management will also look different from what it did in distance learning. While it may be enticing to employ a program to monitor device use, that may lead to more time spent monitoring behavior and less time on instruction, where the teacher’s expertise is most needed. Instead, consider establishing classroom expectations for device use and setting up your classroom in a layout that is conducive to movement and collaboration. You can move around the room to monitor progress, check for understanding, and ensure students are working toward mastery. Set up your room for success by:

  • Ensuring mobility and access. Create a classroom layout that allows you to easily reach any student within a few seconds to provide support while also facilitating seeing students’ devices as you move around the room.
  • Focusing on learning over monitoring. Movement facilitates engaging with students, answering questions, and checking for understanding in an authentic way that will be difficult to replicate from behind a computer used to monitor student devices. By connecting with students at their tables, you are sending the message that you are focusing on learning and students will prioritize what you are putting emphasis on.
  • Eliminating hurdles for learning. Classroom management is more effective when technical hurdles are removed. Set clear instructions for picking up and charging devices and how students can access technical support. One helpful strategy is to create a QR code for students to scan when they need help to access screen casts, how-to instructions, and other resources you have created to address technical questions. These resources can be collaboratively developed with other teachers to save time.

Blended learning may be yet another transition from in-person, distance, and hybrid learning, but it is where we have needed to be all along. Distance learning and hybrid learning stem from logistical necessities rather than instructional ones. In-person learning can be enhanced using devices for collaborative projects not previously possible. It’s time to use the best of distance learning and in-person instruction to establish a blended learning classroom that utilizes devices to take learning to a new level.


Thanks to Ruth, Jennifer, Stephanie, Joshua, and Stepan for contributing their reflections.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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