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Smart Classroom

Keeping on Task in a Digital Environment

One of Washington's largest school districts is using technology to get classroom management under control

It doesn't take much to disrupt an entire high school classroom and get a student off task, particularly when that student is using a desktop or laptop computer to finish a lesson. An incoming e-mail, an instant message, or a link to a really cool video on YouTube can all stop the lesson in its tracks until the student refocuses and gets back to work.

One of Washington State's largest school districts thinks it has found a way to minimize classroom disruption and keep everyone focused and working toward the same goal. Through a new classroom management system that's currently being implemented, Lake Washington School District in Redmond is tapping into technology as a way to keep students productive.

Chip Kimball, superintendent for the 24,000-student district, which is ranked sixth-largest statewide, said Lake Washington schools previously used "various products" to manage its classrooms, with most of the responsibility handled by the teachers themselves.

"There's debate about whether classroom management is a technical issue, a teacher supervision issue, or both," said Kimball. "Of course there needs to be teacher supervision and appropriate policies in place for when kids are doing what they shouldn't be doing. However, teachers also need software to help keep kids focused on the task at hand."

After looking more closely at the viability of a tech-based classroom management solution, Kimball and his team garnered feedback from instructors on the idea. Teachers whose students spent most of their classroom time in front of a computer were particularly enthused, he said, knowing that more effective computer monitoring would allow them to better track student activities and progress.

"Our decision to purchase the system was driver primarily by teacher requests and the realization that those instructors would be able to better manage students and make sure they are on task," said Kimball.

Armed with its educators' blessings, the district then shopped around and investigated the various classroom management solutions available on the market. After reviewing products from a few different vendors, Kimball said his team selected LanSchool v7.4, a product whose features include the display of the teacher's screen on student monitors; shutdown, logoff, or restart of student computers; lockouts of the students' keyboards and mice; co-browsing (with teacher and student) of the Internet; thumbnail monitoring; and the "blanking" of student screens by the instructor.

Developed by LanSchool Technologies, the classroom management system is currently being implemented across the entire Lake Washington School District. Kimball said the application was chosen for its features and benefits, as well as its ability to function in a wireless environment.

"We needed an application that had low bandwidth and that worked well in a wireless environment, which is what we're moving towards," Kimball explained. "LanSchool had a bit of an edge on its competition because its developers have already perfected their application's footprint."

Kimball said the classroom management system is already being used in some of the district's educational labs, which are serving as pilot sites for the implementation. Concurrently, the district is also introducing its one-to-one computer initiative, which will result in all students having a laptop of their own to use for schoolwork and research.

Within the classrooms where the LanSchool pilot is currently operational, Kimball said teachers use the system to manage individual computers, the entire lab, or the whole network, whichever they choose. Using either a PowerPoint presentation, Web page, or a Word document, those instructors are "pushing" their screens out to the students, who, in turn, access that information on their individual computers.

When working on a research project about the solar system, for example, teachers can direct students to appropriate, topical Web sites, then make sure the children don't stray off to check their e-mail or visit MySpace when doing so would be inappropriate. "The teachers can limit access for the students," said Kimball, "and then see what those students are doing--or not doing--while on the computer."

So far, Kimball said, implementation has been fairly seamless, with the only major issue so far being a technical snafu that occurred when the program was run in a mixed environment that included both wired and wireless Internet access. "When you use the teacher console with both wired and wireless, the software doesn't work effectively," said Kimball. "The vendor, which has been very responsive to fixing issues, is working on that now."

So far, Lake Washington School District's teachers like what they see in the classroom management system, Kimball said. "When they see it in action, they're elated," said Kimball, who added that the district's IS staff has approached the new system with cautious optimism. "Our IS staff just wants to make sure that the system is manageable and that it doesn't get out of control."

Ultimately, Kimball said, he has a fundamental expectation of the classroom management solution: to keep students on task. "In this day and age kids have so many options and 'places to go' when it comes to technology," he said. "We think this system gives our teachers an upper hand when it comes to controlling those options."

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