Improving School Performance and Career Preparation With a Wireless Computer Lab

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Two years ago, mandeville high school (http://mandevillehigh.stpsb.org/index.shtml) in Louisiana purchased a mobile wireless computer lab with grant funds from the state. This lab not only helped improve the writing and research skills of the school's ninth-grade students, but also improved its overall performance score to become one of the highest performing schools in the state.

In actuality, the securing and utilization of the mobile computer lab was the culmination of an ambitious school-wide technology plan spanning four years. A plan that began with 32 computers and a facility needing substantial retrofitting just to meet basic electrical needs. This article will serve as a framework for administrators and teachers who strive to bring curricular technology integration to their students, while also trying to raise school performance scores as related to accountability programming.

Developing a School Technology Plan

The first step in technology integration is developing a long-range plan. A five to 10 member technology committee containing teachers, parents, community members and students should be formed and charged with the task of formulating such a plan - assessing the current status and usage of technology and determining where the school community should be in three years. The committee should also assess the school's infrastructure and basic needs such as electrical considerations, furniture, carts and Internet access. In addition, current hardware, including computers, printers, scanners, projectors, cameras and TVs, as well as software should be inventoried considering age and appropriateness related to future needs.

After this assessment, a projection of where the school wants to go should be made based on curricular needs and how technology can help those requests. It is not uncommon for schools to labor excessively on hardware and software requirements, while forgetting about anticipated plans for their usage and/or how it applies to curricular issues such as accountability-related testing programs. During the development of this plan, resources, including other schools, appropriate literature, and hardware and software companies, should be consulted. Also, as the plan is formulated, the generation of required funds must be considered and should be just as detailed and thought-out as the sections of the technology plan addressing usage. Within our school technology plan, it was deemed necessary to acquire a wireless mobile computer lab to assist with career preparation and help students get ready for state-mandated tests, which comprised part of the overall school performance score. Primarily, a mobile computer lab was needed at the school because there was no room for additional fixed labs.

Strengthening Academic Weaknesses

Project CREATE (Careers, Research and Exploration, Application, and Technology Education) was designed to use wireless technology as a catalyst to integrate computer application skills into the writing process with an emphasis on research for future careers. A major goal of the project was to improve the lifelong skills of technology usage and writing of ninth-graders.

Project CREATE focused on careers, while giving students the technology, research and writing experiences necessary to help create their futures. The project sought to produce students who were critical thinkers, independent problem-solvers, as well as information seekers and processors. It also sought to cultivate students who were more aware of the career options available to them, as well as the skills and coursework necessary to pursue those careers. Overall, there were more than 365 regular and special needs ninth-graders impacted by this project.

Project CREATE was implemented through the addition of a mobile computer lab containing 32 wireless, networked laptop computers to the instructional environment of the school. The mobile lab was brought into each ninth-grade English I class once a week. The English I teacher along with the lab facilitator planned and conducted this class. All involved personnel attended six hours of training for familiarization with IBM-compatible computers, Microsoft Office 2000, Internet search engines, as well as other software and research materials.

The mobile computer lab consisted of two laptop carts with 16 Compaq laptops each, plus a printer and teacher station. The lab used software such as Microsoft Office Pro 2000, Open Office Pro 2000, Inspiration and Microsoft LearningPaq software, which includes Bookshelf, Encarta Encyclopedia, Works, World Atlas, Student Writing and Research Center, TimeLiner, and VirusScan. In addition, soft funds were used for materials and supplies, including floppy disks, paper, toner and storage boxes.

Facilitated by seven English I teachers, two career orientation teachers and a lab facilitator, Project CREATE consisted of three components:

  1. Technology education targeted computer application skills intertwined in the writing process. Students created portfolios of computer application activities and writing assignments. These activities provided students with experiences in selecting appropriate technological tools and applying technologies such as word processing, hypermedia and network search tools.
  2. Students employed these skills in a research environment that included various print, Internet and electronic resources in focusing on careers. The students also organized and extracted meaningful information using their word-processing skills.
  3. Finally, during application, students created a research project based on a career, integrating the information and skills accumulated in the above two components. The objective was to integrate computer application, writing and research skills into the English I curriculum to better prepare students for tomorrow's information-intensive world, assist them in choosing a career and prepare them for their state-mandated tests.

The purpose of Project CREATE was to strengthen student academic weaknesses as identified through teacher input, articulation with feeder schools and analysis of the test data. Careers were used as a focus to make the research more meaningful and applicable, as well as to guide the students in their high school preparation for the future.

Each of the following components emphasized organizational skills through the compilation of student portfolios. These portfolio requirements allowed students to select performance criteria, maintain an activity log and create a table of contents. Portfolios also provided students a mechanism to give a written explanation of the problem-solving and processing techniques employed throughout this project.

The first component, technology education, targeted computer application skills such as the many aspects of word processing (e.g., formatting and creating tables). Various elements of those skills were incorporated into assignments created by English I teachers in conjunction with a computer resource instructor. The assignments were designed to promote computer literacy, strengthen writing ability and allow career exploration simultaneously.

In the second component, career research and exploration, library research techniques critical to students in all curricular areas were emphasized. Given today's abundance of available information, it is extremely vital that schools steer students away from memorization and toward the utilization of multimedia sources in the processing of information. In addition, it is becoming increasingly necessary for students to be able to research and organize all forms of electronic media. Use of the Internet, multimedia and traditional print resources in a classroom provides students with an opportunity to access more information at a faster pace, serving as a link among all educational disciplines.

During the third component, application, students came to recognize the usefulness of the computer as a research tool. They used it to apply their newly acquired computer skills toward the production of a research project. Students selected their topics relative to their career paths or interests. The assignment was coordinated with the assistance of the career orientation teacher and their advisor. The research project also contained a written component demonstrating the knowledge of all aspects of the writing process.


Project CREATE Results

Data from Project CREATE not only documented student success relative to career selection and preparation, but also documented overall school-performance score improvement. As a result of this project, Mandeville High School's Iowa Test of Educational Development (ITED) scores rose an average of 2%; thus, contributing to an overall increase in the school's 2002 performance score. The following data shows the success of the project:

  • 363 of 365 students scored 75% or higher on the final checklist, which included computer application skills such as creating and formatting word-processing documents, envelopes, labels and tables, as well as collecting data in a spreadsheet and insetting it in a word-processing document.
  • The average score in "sources of information" increased by 3.9 points and the number of students scoring in the lower two quartiles decreased by 23 students. This data is from the ITED, which is 30% of the high school performance scores in Louisiana.
  • 92% of the students completed their research project and obtained the grade for which they contracted.
  • 97% of the students successfully completed their portfolio.
  • 100% of students completed their career academy pathway.

Integration of New Technologies

The acquisition of lifelong skills is necessary in today's rapidly evolving job market. Several key factors affecting the ability of students to learn and do research on their own were enhanced through the integration of new technologies into the English I curriculum, including encouragement of critical- thinking and processing skills; acquisition, evaluation and application of information technology; relevance and motivation of students; support of collaboration among students; and applied learning.

Some of the foundational skills that were addressed included:

  • Communication - the ability to communicate clearly, fluently, strategically, critically and creatively in society, as well as in a variety of workplaces.
  • Problem solving - the application of knowledge and thinking processes.
  • Resource access and utilization - identification and employment of appropriate tools, techniques and technologies essential to all learning processes.
  • Linking and generating knowledge - use of cognitive processes to generate and link knowledge across the disciplines.
  • Citizenship - working together for the benefit of the individual and the community; being accountable for one's choices and actions.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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