Seeing that we've had our twenty wireless laptops running for the whole eleven week term in the four upper primary classrooms, it is a good time to review the program and make some observations. For me, I'm really interested to see how it has changed learning for my students, how it has impacted on my teaching methodologies and any management issues it has thrown up.
It's worth remembering how I (and the other teachers) managed prior to the laptop program. My school has a computing room with a class worth of desktops housed in the same building as the Resource Centre (Library) and it runs on a negotiated timetable catering for our 17 classes. I would always grab more time in that timetable than I was really entitled to a fair and equitable world and unlike many of my colleagues, would happily take the early morning slots. The time from the first bell until recess time is viewed by many of my colleagues as prime learning time - too valuable to burn on computing room time. (Shakes head in amazement - sighs in frustration.) So, I would always sign up for those unwanted timeslots especially on a Tuesday morning where a cancelled assembly could turn a one hour slot into two.
My class would use that computing time for mind mapping, web research, presentation creation and design, word processing or desktop publishing depending on the set and ongoing learning tasks they were involved with at the time. I would almost never use that time to just use a software program or website in isolation to my ongoing learning program and my students never got to use the room for "free time on the computers" as I have seen on more occasions than I care to recall.
With the introduction of an interactive whiteboard into my classroom in mid 2005, I started to increase my use of digital resources and tools. My computing room time became totally on-task time as any demonstrations or explicit instructions could be shown on the IWB prior to heading over to the computing room. However with the increased use of digital material via the IWB combined with the sort of inquiry based tasks my class were tackling meant that no amount of timetabled computing access seemed to be enough. This was part of the starting point for the introduction of a laptop program.
Being a public school with fixed funding, we did not have the luxury of even contemplating a 1:1 program (unlike some of my private and international school colleagues) but with flexible timetabling and thoughtful implementation, my principal and I figured we could get relevant technology into the hands of our students more often and as they needed it. We decided to start late last year with the twenty laptops housed in two secure trolleys in my classroom but timetabled across the four upper primary classes.
This would mean in an equal world that my own class would be entitled to the whole twenty for one quarter of the school week. In reality, this has been much harder to achieve. The first decision we made as a learning team was to keep both trolleys for each class booking (Tom Barrett has written about a different approach where their laptop fleet was divided permanently amongst his learning team's classes, giving his class full time access to 8 laptops) and negotiate a timetable that all teachers could operate on.
My co-planning partner (aka the teacher next door) made an interesting comment the other day about laptop availability. To paraphrase, she pointed out that it's hard to pinpoint exactly when you might need this technology at your disposal. When the laptops are booked in does not mean that the students can switch to that mode of learning. Sometimes when the students get really engrossed in their work and on a roll, the time will be up and the next class will knocking on the door demanding their slice of the timetabled pie. It would be really good to just have the laptops on standby, ready for the opportune time and know that there were no constraints on their use in terms of time or battery life. But this technology is a scarce commodity and has to be shared equitably. Interestingly, all of the upper primary classes have not given up their regular computing slots which was one predicted outcome I made prior to the wireless program.
There is no doubt that the students enjoy using the laptops. They focus quickly, are eager to show what they have achieved via the network and the IWB with their peers. Being able to use this technology at their own desk where they can access their exercise books, their personal stationery, their "brain food" and discuss ideas with their work partners free from wires and cables. Being able to pick their digital work and bring to a new position in front of their teacher or their fellow students is another big plus.
The laptops also bring the dimension that I felt was missing in the use of IWB technology in the classroom. I could introduce a resource, an idea or a starting point on the IWB which allowed one student at a time to access and manipulate but once that was over, then the kids themselves would settle back to work in their non-digital exercise books. Now I can get the kids using the same stuff as I've just used on the board. For example, tomorrow morning we will be reviewing our progress for our Personal Research Projects, I will getting them to use the Lotus diagram tool on the Exploratree site. I could demonstrate it on the board because it is the easiest clearest way to show how a Lotus diagram can sort out information and then get them to do their work on a large sheet of A3 paper. But the benefit of working digitally will be that the diagram can be constantly refined and easily shared with the class via the class IWB. It's one thing for the teacher to have digital technology at his or her fingertips but the students deserve the same access.
We can't manage to make that digital technology ubiquitous - yet - but the wireless laptop program is a useful step in the right direction.