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University of Texas at Austin Explores LIFE

The innovative laptop initiative engages the College of Education’s pre-serviceteachers in a technology-rich learning environment that helps them preparetheir students for a future in our high-tech world.Atomic Learning provides ongoing training and support.

In the fall of 2002, the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) College of Education (C'E) initiated a program that required all teacher-education students entering its professional development course sequence to acquire an Apple (www.apple.com) iBook and prescribed software for use throughout their academic preparation and field experiences. The Laptop Initiative for Future Educators (LIFE; www.utexas.edu/education/laptop.html), as the program came to be known, was designed to immerse pre-service teachers in a technology-rich learning environment that provides ubiquitous access to technology tools, Internet-based resources,and online communication systems.

LIFE was based on a simple theory: Unless teacher educators model effective use of technology in their own classes, it will not be possible to prepare a new generation of teachers who effectively use these technology tools for learning. Thus, the program goals of LIFE included the seamless integration of technology standards, ensuring state-of-the-art technology, establishing strong partnerships with local school districts, and fostering faculty ownership of the program. The success of LIFE, however, depended on key areas such as professional development, technical assistance, student training, student-centered teaching, and assessment.

Multiple Perspectives and Lessons Learned
There are several lessons learned in planning and implementing a laptop initiative such as LIFE in teacher education, including administrative considerations, faculty and student training, technical support, and field experience.

Administrative considerations. Extensive pilot work with small groups over several years provided invaluable experience for planning and implementing a large-scale initiative. The pilot program confirmed that ubiquitous access to computers and networks produced significant gains in the integration of technology into the entire teaching and learning process, and helped identify the multiple issues that would need to be addressed in wide-scale implementations.

Faculty and student training. As the infrastructure has improved, more effort has been focused on the integration of technology into curriculum. Currently, the focus of the initiative is to support faculty as they continue to enrich their syllabi with effective technology assignments.

Technology training workdays—during which faculty develop assessment rubrics, lesson plans, and technology-enhanced assignments—are essential. Perhaps even more important than the technology products created are the support, validation,and creative energy that faculty provide to each other. Through these interactions, faculty realize that they do not all have to be technology experts to successfully implement high-tech tools into their courses.

The laptop initiative also created a critical need to train students to use the new hardware and software tools. Frequent workshops were provided at the beginning of each semester to familiarize new students with the operating system, basic applications, and resources of their newly acquired computer. These sessions were followed by an ongoing series of workshops designed to increase the students’ knowledge and skills in using their computer as a learning tool.

Since students and teachers both needed an ongoing training and support system, Atomic Learning (www.atomiclearning.com) was selected as a training partner. Atomic Learning provides Web-based software training and 24/7 support through a library of more than 15,000 short tutorial movies that answer those “How do I do that?” questions. Atomic Learning not only allowed students to learn software on their time—frequently late at night—but enabled faculty to continue to teach subject matter, rather than spend valuable class time explaining how to use the software applications.

Technical support. The infrastructure created to sustain LIFE included partnering with the school’s Learning Technology Center (LTC) to offer help desk and technical support when hardware failed. It also provided wireless Internet access throughout the C'E, as well as in the local elementary and secondary classrooms in which preservice teachers practiced their skills. In addition, the LTC facilitates and supportsthe instructional and research activities of the college’s faculty, students, and staff by providing computer and media production facilities, equipment, and services. The Laptop Help Desk is another critical part of LTC’s support of LIFE. The goal of the help desk, which is staffed by four student assistants, is to provide LIFE students with software and hardware support for their iBooks. If major hardware repairs are needed, the Laptop Help Desk can make arrangements to ship laptops under warranty directly to Apple. The help desk staff also stays informed of Apple news and current issues to ensure top-quality service to C'E students.

Field experience. The College of Education facilitates the training of Austin Independent School District (AISD) mentor teachers to use the same technology that is modeled and taught in the pre-service teachers’ professional development courses.

This training model provides mentor teachers with the tools and training that enable them to become personal and professional users of the technology, and provides a technology-rich field experience for UT pre-service students. Then, when student teachers begin their field experience in the mentor teachers’classrooms,the technology tools they’ve been issued during technology training sessions can be used in the classrooms, the mentor teachers will know how to use the tools, and the students will also be accustomed to using them. This provides a great opportunity for collaboration among the mentor teachers and the student teachers in incorporating the use of technology into the student teachers’ lesson plans and field experiences.

Future Directions and Sustainability
As students receive their certifications and begin teaching in schools, the real impact of LIFE will be felt. Developing teachers who can use technology tools to improve and even transform the learning process is the ultimate goal of the program. As the program continues to evolve, faculty will expand and refine the use of technology in their curricula. Applications of new technologies, such as the use of Apple iSight cameras for Web conferencing, will be explored for their benefit to teacher education, and students will become teachers who will improve educationthrough the effective use of technology.

“The Laptop Initiative for Future Educators demonstrates the college’s commitment to prepare educators who can effectively teach with technology so that they, in turn, can impart to their students the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the technology-rich world of the future,” says Manuel Justiz, dean of UT’s College of Education.

Melissa LeB'euf Tothero is the program coordinator for the Laptop Initiative for Future Educators. She also coordinates INSITE, a project funded by the US D'E.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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