One-to-one Laptops is Hard, Right?

A few weeks ago I met Martin Levins for the first time, even though we’d been email pals for some time. Martin is the Director of Information Technology at The Armidale School in New South Wales, Australia, and uses TechYES – our student technology literacy certification program in his laptop school.

The following article by Martin appeared in the Anywhere, Anytime Learning Foundation July newsletter, and both AALF and Martin have agreed to allow me to republish it here. I find the emphasis on in-depth preparation and “learning, not the laptop” refreshing, and resonate with his own personal learning being enhanced by writing for an authentic audience. Life-long learning indeed!


One-to-one Laptops is Hard, Right?
by Martin Levins Director of Information Technology, The Armidale School

That’s what I get asked when I tell colleagues and other educators that our school has embarked on such a program. This year (2007), in our 600 student K-12 school, we gave out laptops to all students from grades 3 to 12 and one thing that has really surprised us has been how well the program has gone. Our school adopted an approach that was learning-driven, backed with three years of laptops supplied to teachers with carts for class work, and an opt-in lease program for parents. Our infrastructure had undergone a refresh of both switch gear and wireless coverage so we were ready; only a refinement of our management policies and procedures was needed. And we’re still learning here: while software and hardware are common to projects of this type, people, procedures and policies, this human “wetware,” is very much peculiar to a given institution.

Our preparedness was boosted by the level of executive commitment from the headmaster down. Backed by teachers and students who wanted more, this was an essential paving stone on the road to 1-to-1. Of course, it wasn’t all teachers who were ready to go; waiting for all to come on board is like waiting for Godot: it’ll never happen. It sounds harsh, but they’ll either adopt or leave. To help them with this decision, I had adopted the mantra of “changing, and staying the same,” asking teachers to really think about what they are doing, and since 2004, the discussion in the faculty lounge turned from sports scores to what makes effective teaching to, eventually, what makes effective learning.

Initially, teachers can be easily seduced by the wow factor, although that rapidly fades as (good) teachers realize that gloss doesn’t really make up for a lack of preparation or understanding. They take longer to realize that many of the shiny tricks are simple one-button mouse clicks and largely irrelevant.

An English teacher may worry that he, unlike his students, can’t make a transition that flips between two video clips. He perceives that he is somehow deficient, but good teachers are not deficient in their craft, irrespective of their IT ability. So a teacher can turn this situation around, asking the student showing such an effect, “How has that transition advanced the narrative,” shifting the focus away from the technology and back to the learning.

We’re noticing similar changes in our students as well. Lots of people talk about student voices: how students now have the ability to express themselves graphically, but we’re noticing more than this.

A ninth grade science class was working on the importance of binocular vision. One student generally described as “not capable of much” by many teachers grabbed his laptop after class and used the built-in camera to record his catching success with both eyes open, compared to one eye closed. He put the resultant Quicktime video onto his iWeb generated website (all of our students are provided with their own website).

Now here is the genuine wow factor: a student doing real science, designing his own experiments. Someone who is “not capable of much” doing real science in his own time, continuing his learning at home. Exciting, huh?

We’re seeing similar things with students writing more because their podcast sounds lame, but also writing less because their movie is too long. This apparent paradox is explained by Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time,” meaning that writing concisely takes longer. Students asked to build a thirty-second advertisement have to do more thinking than one asked for a “five or ten minute” video. It also takes the load off the network!

I’ve found myself benefiting greatly from this approach as well. One of my “other” jobs is education columnist for Australian Macworld and I prepared for our rollout by writing columns on the infrastructure, management, pedagogical, and financial issues surrounding a 1-to-1 program.

The discipline imposed by writing for an authentic audience really made me refine my thinking about our upcoming project, reinforced the importance of reflective writing and helped me model what I wanted my students to do.

Reckon you can’t afford 1-to-1? You can: if the argument is compelling enough, you’ll find the money.


2 Replies to “One-to-one Laptops is Hard, Right?”

  1. Great to see laptops more widely available for kids now. It will prepare them for the future where nearly every person in the workforce will be required to use some sort of portable computer.

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