Realities of Teaching in a Laptop School: A Panel Discussion

August 4, 2009 at 3:14 pm 1 comment

This panel discussion was the final session of day one and allowed for both prepared questions from the moderator as well as questions and comments from the floor and those following in the online environment. Rather than going through a rundown of the discussion, I will pull out recurring themes that presented themselves in this session as well a s throughout the day. The panel consisted of Moderator Mark Salkind (Head of School) and panelists Jonathan Howland (Dean of Faculty, Henri Picciotto (Math), Courtney Rein (English), Steve Speier (Language).

How has the laptop helped or hindered student writing?

This first question stimulated considerable responses from the panel as well as the floor. From the perspective of an English teacher, the students do more types of writing today than ever before. The laptop allows students to draft papers in class while she collects sentences for later discussions as a class. With greater access comes greater access to audiences and forms of writing. By making the writing public the accountability goes up. Students are more accountable when they are writing for their peers than when they are writing for the teacher. Authentic writing for authentic audiences.

Another theme centered around the concept of pedagogy, collaboration and good teaching. It was commented that laptops have the ability to “expose bad teaching”. Consider the laptop as an amplifier of teaching effectiveness and pedagogy. This led into a discussion regarding classroom management practices. “Isn’t the laptop a distracter?”. Of course the laptop can be a tool of distraction. But so can a book, phone, or even a pencil. Students have always been good at using items as distracters. One suggestion was to close the laptops when you have the need to give direct instruction- “lids down”, “clam shell”(left slightly open). There was also talk about the power and motivation of multiple students working around a single computer such as in the documentary film project in “Telling their Stories”.

As for larger problems, the students know the rules. They sign an AUP as do the parents. Students are monitored especially in the 9th grade as most are new to the 1:1 laptop idea. The school uses software to monitor online student activity (Apple Remote Desktop). There was a discussion about trust and the need to balance trust with verification. If you aggressively monitor, how can you say you have trust. This is something that is balanced out as suspected violations occur. Therefore, the idea is to build trust in the community rather than simply monitor all activity at all times.

What about time outside of class? With greater access comes greater time online. It is important that we manage that with expectations. Some teachers make online office hours or set time limits outside of school. You need to create boundaries that hold up on this “permeable environment”.

What about testing and assessment? Here the conversation focused on several areas, How do you maintain the integrity of the testing environment when all students are on their own laptops? Control of site access, preloaded papers etc. Another aspect of this discussion focused on the need to match the assessment with the form of instruction. Testing is not appropriate for all types of instruction. It was noted that it is our responsibility to develop authentic assessments that can’t simply be answered by downloading outside answers etc. There is a culture of trust in the school evidence of cheating is treated on a case by case basis.

Communication, how has the laptop changed communication, this was largely addressed at the top of this post. However, a great comment was made by an English teacher “Don’t send me an e-mail that I will need to correct”. Others take a different approach. The important thing here is to match the communication to the situation.

Finally, there was talk about the being able to authenticate the gains in learning if they exist. This discussion focused more around quantitative studies related to standardized exams like the AP and IB. It was agree that this type of study would have problems being validated if it attributed the gains or losses to the use of the laptop. Learning environments are very complex systems and this would have to be done is a controlled artificial environment. However, there was anecdotal evidence about increases in writing abilities. This however, is the same problem when looked at as being specifically attributed to being a laptop school.

In closing this session, it was again emphasized that the collaboration is key. “In the past, you wanted a teacher who was a superstar in their field—not needing a helper. Now you Urban looks for teachers who want to collaborate.” It is now what you can understand and do with the knowledge. In the early days of the transition to laptops, faculty were paid a stipend for work they did in preparing for laptop lessons. Now they focus on collaboration. The laptop is not the focus, rather, faculty collaboration.

As an editorial comment, I realized at the end of the session that I was a city where I could visit “The Pirate Store” or 826 Valencia. I bring this out at this time as this is a wonderful example of the power of writing for authentic audiences, writing for purpose. If 826 Valencia is new to you, may I suggest a walk to that address in San Francisco (if you are here) or visit the following sites. You will be amazed.

As always, comments are welcome and wanted.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jason Robertson  |  August 5, 2009 at 7:56 am

    Chris, thanks for the link to the TED talk. I love these for inspiration and this one (though I’ve just listened to a few minutes thus far) seems particularly exciting in relation to education.


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