Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, our school went through a number of transformations and changes, all aimed at enhancing the quality of the learning and teaching within our building. We adapted a 5 x 3 trimester schedule providing longer class periods and a lower student-to-teacher ratio. We added a house system separating the student body into six different houses mixed by age. Through a partnership with Apple, we implemented a 1:1 laptop program with our students receiving MacBooks. Below are five lessons we learned and the two biggest struggles we continue to face.

Lessons learned

  1. It’s the pedagogy not the technology. Technology should always be at the service of pedagogy. If you’ve heard Gary Stager speak or read his posts, I’m sure you’ve heard this theme before. When technology integration moves from what Alan November calls automative to informative, the real fun begins. Technology integration in schools should not be about tacking technology onto poor pedagogy. Rather, the real joy and power of integrating technology into the classroom is the power it has to redefine the relationships in the classroom and reorient them toward a more student-centered approach to learning. In our efforts, pushing for a longer class period also allowed our staff to move away from lecture-driven instructional models and to start implementing strategies that are more constructivist in their nature. Project-based learning, challenge problems, and creative and collaborative work are all enhanced and enabled by high quality technology integration. Using a Google Doc and the Web to do a 20-minute kick-start with teams of students finding, validating, and creating information on a topic within the curriculum is a very engaging way to begin a new unit. Using various tech tools to easily integrate peer instruction strategies based on the work of Dr. Eric Mazur is a great way to leverage the technology. But in all of these examples, it is really the orientation to and relationship with the learning that has changed.
  2. Support the pedagogy at all costs. Teachers will and can change their methods when they are comfortable with their knowledge and inspired by what they see from those around them. Any new teacher quickly begins to teach like her peer group. To support this shift in pedagogy, we spent the entire year before the 1:1 program began creating a full period a day for staff to attend PD sessions throughout the year. We created a new position, Director of Instructional Technology, to lead a good number of these sessions with the goal of staff literacy in a number of pedagogical tools before the 1:1 initiative started. As the work is ongoing, we now offer PD sessions after school on Tuesdays and Saturday mornings, giving our staff an array of choices, with a certain minimum number that need to be attended. We compensate them at $27 an hour through our Title II funds. A list of this year’s sessions is here. This model has created small groups of teachers who attend sessions that they are personally interested in and who want to integrate these strategies into their classrooms.
  3. The plumbing and the plumbers. For staff to choose these strategies, they have to be guaranteed the network and bandwidth will be supportive. To that end, we added to our technology staff, doubling its size from one to two. Additionally we upgraded in a significant way the technology infrastructure by adding numerous access points and made sure our bandwidth pipe could handle 800 students pulling on it at once. I believe these changes are essential and that without them our program would be in peril. Access to the Web has to work and work quickly if these strategies will be relied upon. Additionally, every student and staff member was given a gmail account hosted through the school. In a year and half of running, our network has been down for approximately one hour. It just so happened that one hour coincided perfectly with the superintendent’s annual visit and the need to log mid-term grades. Funny how those things work out.
  4. Student ownership. We had the choice early on to either externalize ownership to the students or keep the ownership of the machines on the books of the school. In our case – and after much study – we decided to externalize the cost and have families purchase their laptops through the school. We provide financing options to our families. As a private school we have this opportunity. I realize that in many public schools the machines must be school-owned. In visiting with other schools who have school-owned 1:1 programs, the breakage rates seem to be higher. In general our breakage rates have come in below expected numbers for the students. Yet, interestingly, the staff break their machines at a rate four times that of students. If our students want to put stickers and other stuff all over the machine, they can have at it.
  5. Principal leadership. If it isn’t important to the leadership, it won’t get done. I’m not the world’s greatest principal by any means – and I make a whole host of mistakes every single day – but if I do anything well it might be modeling technology use. I teach a class every year in the high school and lead a good number of the professional development sessions related to technology-rich teaching strategies. I believe that by spending my time modeling what I believe is important, it allows the staff to get on board. I won’t ask you to do something I won’t do or won’t be willing to learn to do. Of course I pay for the time spent teaching by having to log more early mornings or late nights in the office, but I think the relationships built with students and staff more than make up for it.

Biggest Struggles

  1. Classroom management. Our staff has learned rather quickly that if they want to continue to use lecturing as their dominant instructional strategy, equipping the audience with a laptop is not conducive to that end. The computer should be more than a $1,000 pencil for note-taking. Direct instruction in its proper place and within limited time frames can be an effective strategy. When everyone has a machine, how do you guarantee that they are all on task? To this end, our staff has learned about where to be physically while they lecture and how to set up the classroom. Some staff use the LAN monitoring program. In some sense, though, student engagement in a lecture-driven classroom has always been an issue. Note passing and eye rolling have always been there. Switching from passing a note to chatting on Skype is the same problem in different clothes. Good teachers have engaged students.
  2. Assisting parents. Our students take their laptops home at the end of the school day and for holidays and the summer. At school we use the Barracuda system to filter the Web and their access and to block the traditional things that a school would block. When our students take the machines home, we presume competence on the part of our parents that they already are dealing with their own rules and Web access issues. For the most part this proves to be true, but I do think we need to do a better job of supporting some of our families that struggle in this area. One fear that some of our staff and families had is that our students would spend all of their time staring at the screen in front of them. This may be true the first week they pick up their machine over the summer, but over the last two years a few interesting things have happened. Discipline referrals have fallen by 50%, absenteeism is down by 30%, participation in school events like Homecoming and the canned food drive has more than doubled, and the number of student-initiated clubs and activities has grown by around 30%. And enrollment looks to be growing for the third year in a row. We interpret these changes to mean that technology is helping our school to form an environment that is truly conducive to student learning in a number of areas.   From what we see school is becoming more relevant and a place where our students want to be.

In conclusion, our journey is an ongoing one. Simply buying the machines and upgrading the network is not enough to be a 1:1 laptop school. The true work is in shifting the pedagogy to be more student-centered. As Gary Stager says, less “us” and more “them.” The rewards to this point have been worth the risks.

Charlie Roy is the principal of Peoria Notre Dame High School, an 800-student coeducational Diocesian Catholic school in Peoria, Illinois. He also is an adjunct instructor for Aurora University, teaching courses in school leadership and instructional technology. In his former career, Charlie was an options trader on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Follow Charlie on Twitter at @caroy.