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1:1 Laptop Initiatives | Feature

Prepping Teachers for a 1:1 Laptop Initiative

In 2008, children in Birmingham, AL, received XO computers through a government program designed to help bridge the digital divide for inner-city schoolchildren. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project put the low-cost, wireless devices into the hands of 15,000 students in first through sixth grades, making it the largest 1:1 distribution in the United States.

But bridging the digital divide takes more than just equipment. It also requires administrative and teacher buy-in, student and parent participation, and a dedication to automating the "traditional" classroom. Shelia Cotten, associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's department of sociology, had firsthand experience with the challenges behind 1:1 implementations. Now she's using that background to help ensure that Birmingham's program meets expectations.

"When I was with the University of Maryland, I received a grant to study middle school students who were using technology," said Cotten. "When I heard that Birmingham was buying 15,000 XO laptops, I saw it as an opportunity to survey students before and after the school year--it would be a natural experiment."

Cotten put together a team and wrote another successful National Science Foundation grant. The $1 million in funding would be used to develop UAB Birmingham's Integrating Computing Across the Curriculum (ICAC) program. The first step involved surveying about 1,700 students and teachers both before the XO distribution, and at the end of the academic year.

Early on, Cotten said, she picked up on some common concerns among the teachers who were surveyed. "I was hearing over and over again how some of them didn't feel prepared to use the XOs, which are different from your typical laptop computers," said Cotten. "Teachers hadn't had much training at that point, and that created uncertainties about the 1:1 implementation."

From past experience, Cotten was also aware of other issues that could thwart a successful 1:1 implementation. Add in the fact that the district has a high minority student population and poverty levels, she said, and the roadblocks can get even higher. "A lot of these students haven't ever owned a computer," said Cotten. "Giving them the technology without the necessary resources, support and planning, is completely ineffective."

To help bridge the gap, Cotten and her team of education and government faculty members, computer scientists and biologists, came up with a series of computer workshops that target both students and teachers from selected Birmingham City schools. The ICAC workshops rolled out this summer and are open to fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and rising fourth- and fifth-grade students from several schools.

According to Cotten, the teacher workshops cover topics such as how to use and integrate XO laptops into the elementary school curriculum. Teachers who enroll receive a $100 per day stipend. The student workshops include topics like computer programming using Scratch programming language and other concepts.

Other ICAC initiatives include classroom observations of the XO implementation, and inside peeks at exactly how the computers are being used in those classrooms. Cotten said the information gathered was used to develop lesson plans centered around the XOs. "We went back to the schools in the spring and demonstrated some of the lesson plans," she explained, "and helped teachers incorporate them into their classrooms."

The workshops start with the fundamentals of using the XO, said Cotten, and emphasize "getting teachers familiar with the computers' capabilities and functions." Teachers break into groups and create lesson plans, which are then presented to the entire class on the final day of the workshop.

Cotten said the first workshop, which took place in June, went very well and produced positive feedback from the attendees, some of whom weren't using the XOs at all in the classroom. "They came away from the sessions much more comfortable with the XOs," said Cotten. "Some participants weren't even using them in class because they didn't know what to do with them."

In July, UAB Birmingham will host three different one-week student XO workshops, or "summer camps." The focus will be on computing concepts, according to Cotten, with some of the workshops featuring "unplugged" activities centered on the XOs. "They'll learn a lot about programming at a pretty young age," said Cotton, "we're excited to be able to offer that."

For the 2010-2011 academic year, Cotten and her team will add six more schools to their agendas and will begin working with those institutions to introduce XO-centric lesson plans and conduct training and professional development. "Right now we have about 45 lessons plans developed using the XOs, and we'd like to have about 70 by end of the year," said Cotten, who added that the program will be gradually scaled up to include all schools participating in the 1:1 initiative.

"Over the next few years, we're hoping to also involve parents in the process by bringing them in to showcase the vital skills that their children are learning," said Cotten, who said she sees the efforts as a segue into technical and science careers that students might not otherwise consider. "Ultimately, we know that if we can get students interested in computing at an early age, that it will lead more of them to take an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineer and math) careers."

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