Curriculum-Based Reform :: Florida

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LEVERAGING LAPTOPS

EETT funds allowed several Florida districts to roll out laptop programs.The common mission: transforming curriculum through real-world projects.

FLORIDA’S DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION used Enhancing Education Through Technology funds to pilot Leveraging Laptops in 2006-2007, a project that enabled 11 districts in the state to launchlaptop programs. The districts represent different student populationsizes: four large—Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas,and Seminole; three medium—Escambia, Lake, and Manatee;and four small—Gadsden, Hendry, Madison, and Taylor.

To ensure the quality of the programs, researchers from various universities were brought in to study the different district implementations. All of the districts received the same fourday training through the Florida Digital Educator Program, which supports technology integration across K-12 curricula.

Each district has developed its laptop program according to its own needs. For example, the focus of the grant in Madison County is to improve reading and writing scores across the curriculum by emphasizing science and social studies through project-based learning. This is Madison’s first crack at launching a 1-to-1 computing environment in its elementary-grade classrooms. Prior to the grant, there were only 10 mobile computer carts available in the district’s six schools. Since the grant was awarded, the curriculum in the elementary classrooms has been transformed as students engage in real-world projects. In one fourth-grade classroom at Lee Elementary School, students embarked on a virtual trip through Alaska via the internet, using a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software to track mushing teams through the Iditarod.

Seminole County has also emphasized the need for the development of a project-based learning environment. Through project REAL (Relevant, Engaged, Authentic Learning), the district is aiming to boost achievement in middle school mathematics and science, using laptop computers and complementary technology devices. The program’s four participating middle schools each had to form a partnership with an outside organization, such as a zoo, YMCA, university, or water management program. The partnerships offer teachers a way to involve their students in real-world projects relevant to the curriculum. Teachers underwent training at the Central Florida Zoo, which gave them the chance to create a digital story about their experience, a process they could then model with their students.

The focus of the laptop plan at Pinellas County is science learning, with six cross-grade, multi-school student projects designed to emphasize language arts skills, high-level thinking, and project-based learning. The Pinellas program engages students through interdisciplinary projects in which they develop podcasts on life processes, weather, habitats, and ecology. At the high school level, students create books to assist struggling readers and students with limited English proficiency in the development of their reading skills.

Pinellas launched its program at three campuses—a collaborative among an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school that reside within a five-mile radius of each other. It will be interesting to evaluate the experiences and performance of the current crop of elementary school kids once they feed through to high school.

While all of these laptop programs have been uniquely implemented, there is still the common emphasis on transforming standards-based curricula through real-world projects, using technology as the vehicle. Findings on the effectiveness of Leveraging Laptops, drawn from more than 200 hours of observation, will be available in the late summer to examine the program’s impact in Florida’s classrooms. The preliminary data, though, bodes well, including showing a dramatic increase in student engagement and a move away from teacher-directed instruction in favor of project-based learning, which is a decisive stride into the 21st century.

-Kate Kemker is bureau chief for the Florida Department of Education’s Bureau of Instruction and Innovation.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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