Warming Up To Wireless

As wireless technology takes hold in school districts, the biggest challenge is getting teachers to embrace it, to take student learning to a new level.

by Jacob Milner

Just south of the Canadian border, way up north on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the winters are windy and the ice is thick. Moose outnumber humans by a staggering ratio. Hunting is the regional pastime. So it’s no wonder that students at Brimley Area Public Schools often feel like they’re learning in the middle ofnowhere.

The district is small—fewer than 3,000 students— yet it is spread across a geographic area that spans hundreds of miles. Buildings are tiny; budgets are too. Teachers in the district say students don’t expect their educational opportunities to include such extravagances as whiz-bang technology. Most years, the big attraction is the state basketball tournament in Lansing, hundreds of miles away.

But things are changing for the better in Brimley and, as a result, opportunities are broadening. In the spring of 2003, a statewide program called Learning Without Limits (now called Freedom to Learn) provided Brimley administrators with enough money to shed the constraints of Ethernet ports and expand the district’s network with wireless technology. That year, each ninth-grader received a laptop to use in class and at home until the end of the school year. Last fall, that same luxury was made available to every student in grades 6-12. During the same time, the district took the step of putting laptops on mobile carts so they could be transported between classrooms. Today, Barb Light, a science teacher who runs the project, reports that wireless is still going strong.

“I overheard one of the ninth-graders say to another, ‘The laptops are the best thing to ever happen to Brimley, even better than if we won basketball regionals,’” Light recounts with pride. “The students have responded so favorably, it’s just incredible.”

This kind of wireless epiphany is nothing new. In districts big and small across the country, students, teachers, and administrators alike have come to appreciate the benefits of wireless technology. Because the technology delivers Internet signals on airborne radio frequencies, wireless networking allows users of all portable devices to move freely on a school’s campus and stay connected to the Internet. For those districts that need to add portable classrooms, the technology makes the job easier because it requires no additional wires, and wireless networks are easy to scale. Finally, technologists who have made the switch to wireless say that eliminating the costs associated with wiring a traditional network can save a district thousands of dollars, freeingup that money for software or other technology purchases.

Empowering Teachers
Still, the wireless revolution arrives with a host of challenges for K-12 districts. District administrators and technology coordinators agree that the first obstacle to wireless implementations is persuading teachers to get on board with them. According to Alice Owen, executive director of Technology for the Irving Independent School District (TX), it’s critical for districts switching to wireless to support their educators in learning the technology, and to know that having well-trained teachers always translates into better-educated students down the road.

“Technology always should be a catalyst for change, but you can’t change anything if your teachers don’t understand how to use the technology first,” Owen says. “One of the biggest pieces [of wireless technology] is getting teachers prepared for the change that happens in their classrooms when you put a connected device in the hands of every student.”

To acclimatize teachers to wireless, Irving ISD begins every school year with three days of workshops, seminars, and best practice- sharing sessions in which teachers learn just about everything they can about wireless and how to incorporate it into the classroom. The classes range from general discussions on Web-based lessons to sophisticated talks about preventing music piracy and snuffing out plagiarism. In addition, two educators at each high school are employed as Instructional Technology specialists (ITS’s) and provide one-on-one advice or aid to any teacher who requests it throughout the year.

This touch has worked wonders for learning environments and teacher psyches alike. Last year, for instance, at a time when the Irving schools were struggling to prevent studentsfrom using Instant Messenger (IM) programs during class, one of the district’s high school English teachers turned to herITS to find a way to stop the madness. The duo devised amethod to turn distracting chat into a legitimate learning tool.

As Owen tells the story, the teacher instructed students to prepare group presentations about a particular book, but created groups consisting of students from different class periods. The teacher then required that students “meet” electronically to discuss their assignment, grading them on their ability to put together their entire presentations over e-mail and IM.

“It was a perfect demonstration of how we’re trying to get our teachers to see that they can relinquish control but legitimize behavior in a way that demonstrates how technology can be useful,” Owen says. “Adults use IM to get work done; this teacher enabled students to realize that chat can help them finish assignments too.”

Thanks to several bond referendums, Irving ISD began distributing laptops at a single high school in 2001; the program has grown steadily by grade ever since. In 2003, the district distributed Dell (http://www.dell.com) laptops to more than 8,000 high school students across four schools. Since then, due to a federally funded and state-distributed Technology Immersion Plant grant, another 1,500 middle and elementary school students have been added to the program.

While the logistics of loaning, maintaining, and re-collecting more than 9,600 laptops are formidable (see “Laptop Management: How It Works,” page 34), Owen says the bigger job for her is getting teachers to build their lessons around the technology. And in truth, instructing teachers to operate the technology can be an easier task than making sure they turn around and use it. In many cases, teachers have been teaching the same subjects with the same resources for years. The key issue: convincing them to give up control.

Most teachers ground their entire careers on establishing a monopoly of control in the classroom, explains Owen— teaching what they want, when they want, anyway they want to teach it. Bringing a wireless laptop into this environment, which means forfeiting some of this control to students, is a much tougher sell than a new textbook or lesson plan. Owen says the best way to prepare teachers for the transition to wireless is to do so from the bottom up—employing a populist approach similar to the one that drove Internet use. In Irving ISD, this has translated into identifying true technology stars among the teacher base and letting them be the ones to blaze trails for their colleagues to follow.

“When teachers see that their friends are OK with something new,” Owen says, “they’ll dip their t'e in the water and try a few things. Wireless really forces these teachers to restructure the way they teach and interact with kids. It’s difficult sometimes, and people don’t tend to think about that.”

A Statewide Revolution
If the practice of teaching teachers in a district the size of Irving sounds like a tough go, just imagine how daunting the task is for Bette Manchester, director of special projects for the Department of Education in Maine. Since the end of 2001, Manchester and a team of specialists affiliated with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) have overseen a massive rollout of more than 43,000 wireless Apple iBook (http://www.apple.com) computers to nearly 240 school districts across the state. When asked to identify the reasons for the success of the multimillion-dollar program, she cites the department’s decision to put the same emphasis on teaching teachers about the new technology as it d'es on distributing the technology to students. She adds that the program, much like wireless technology itself, continues to evolve every day.

As Manchester explains, professional development around the state’s wireless initiative began before students even received their computers. In early 2001, the state started using federal and state money to sponsor professional learning opportunities designed to get teachers thinking about expanding the curriculum through technology. As the program matured, development programs for school principals and tech coordinators did too. The state used a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (http://www.gatesfoundation.org) to stipend a squadron of “teacher leaders” for each school. These leaders work with principals to outline specifically what they need to make wireless worth their while. As teachers have played a bigger role in identifying the needs for professional development and management of the devices in this new environment, their interest in the effort has jumped.

“[You have to] expect teachers to use technology and then reassure them that you’re providing them the help and professional development to make [wireless] part of their routine,” Manchester says. “One of the teachers I worked with on this project has been teaching for 35 years. At first, he told me he was going to retire from teaching because he thought this was such a foolish endeavor and a waste of money. Six months later, he told me it was the best year he ever had in teaching.”

Maine’s technology leaders have been only part of the solution. Over the last two years in particular, the state has become a veritable wireless teacher-training academy, using federal and state funds to bankroll dozens of face-to-face and school-site workshops every week, somewhere in the state. The development blitz includes regional classes, where, say, math teachers from 20 area schools can come together for lessons in how to incorporate wireless into their mathematics curriculum. Interestingly, MLTI recruits kids from a student technology organization called the iTeam to offer feedback and suggestions, as well as to volunteer their time to help instruct teachers on interactive alternatives that spike student interest, such as using a DVD instead of a textbook in a lesson about animals, or substituting a podcast for a standard chalkboard lecture.

Beyond this, the state also supports the presence of leadership teams in each school. The teams are composed of building principals, teacher leaders, technology integrators, technology coordinators, and librarians who provide support via in-person, online, and virtual interactions, all designed to make sure teachers are familiar with best practices in the area of wireless education. Specifically, the intent is to educate teachers about how to build curricula in collaboration with the Maine Digital Content Group, a state-funded content organization that pulls together original material from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, regional museums, the Maine Historical Society, Northeast Historic Film, and local science centers. The resource material is offered along with the Maine Virtual Library (http://libraries.maine.edu/mainedatabases).

“People think that you can just put technology in a school, give a few days of training, and everything will be fine,” says Manchester. “What we’ve learned is that exactly the opposite is true, and that the only way you can ensure people will adopt the technology the way you hope they will is to give them more resources than they could possibly imagine, to embed [wireless] in everything they do.”

Small District, Big Changes
Large entities such as the state of Maine and Irving ISD aren’t alone in tackling the issue of teaching teachers about wireless; an emphasis on professional development has also become a priority in smaller districts like Brimley. Light, who coordinates the district’s wireless efforts, says that perhaps the biggest problem for her district has been getting teachers to carve out time for detailed training sessions. Because many of Brimley’s teachers already are overcommitted, with tight schedules at work and busy lives at home, Light says that educator time is at a premium, making timely and in-depth training difficult. She says that widespread administrative support for training sessions before and after school, combined with a growing number of teachers who actively work to share best practices and help colleagues integrate the technology, has helped smooth the way.

“As we have learned how technologically capable students are at going around some of the rules we had, we had to change our plans accordingly,” Light explains. “As with any new educational program, we have learned a lot in the early implementation stages.”

All signs indicate that Brimley’s move to wireless has been a boon. Light, a veteran teacher of nearly 20 years, boasts that she’s a “wireless convert,” and says she has overhauled the way she teaches to capitalize on the benefits of the technology. Light also says that she’s made her lessons more “project-oriented” to exploit the real-time access students have to real-life data, which, in depth and scope, far exceeds the information that any one textbook could provide. In a recent lesson on genetics, for instance, Light had students log onto a special Web site where they could “cyberbreed” mice and observe certain traits through several generations. In a lesson on volcan'es, she had students examine seismic information and monitor eruptions online.

In addition to these obvious changes, Light’s teaching style has undergone some subtle transformations as well. She asks students to use their laptops to collaborate on PowerPoint presentations, and sometimes requires groups to use (and build) interactive Web sites to help each other learn. Moreover, with the help of a program called Discourse from Educational Testing Service (http://www.ets.com), Light connects with each student privately. Students can respond to questions without having to speak in front of their peers, giving shy and insecure kids the chance to have their thoughts heard. Even the appearance of Light’s classroom has been altered. It used to have the traditional rows of desks; now Light arranges the desks in groups so that students can interact with each other as they work.

“Students feel the laptops are helping them to be better students and be a lot better organized,” Light says. “I’d say [the laptops] are helping us be better teachers, too, and at the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about.”

The Next Wireless Frontier
One district coordinator is aiming for the stars.
One of the largest public school districts in California, Manteca Unified School District isn’t accustomed to doing things on a small scale. This may explain the latest iteration of the Central Valley district’s wireless project: a drive to build a $1.6 million wireless canopy system over the entire surrounding community, enabling students and parents alike to log on wirelessly from anywhere, with just about any device, at any time. The effort dovetails with a thin-client implementation designed to give students fast, safe, affordable and ubiquitous computing power. According to Michael Dodge, assistant superintendent for Business Services, it’s also the first phase of a bigger project to use the canopy to run wireless VoIP, and eventually sell wireless access to the community,creating additional revenue streams for the school district.

Specifics of the canopy are still being worked out, but Dodge says the district will extend wireless coverage with the help of towers from Proxim (http://www.proxim.com) set atop each of the district’s 27 schools, along with additional wireless services from Motorola (http://www.motorola.com). He notes that every student in the district would be given a Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP) key to access the network from home.With that key, students may have as much wireless access off campus as they do on—namely, the ability to use laptops for just about anything available to them online, including a thin-client login to their individual folder on a centralized terminal server. Stay tuned.

Laptop Management: How It Works
What d'es it take for a school district to distribute 9,500 laptops every year?Planning—and lots of it.
Strength may be in numbers, but don’t tell that to a good many K-12 school districts, which have found that the process of handling large volumes of wireless laptops can be problematic for any administration. Not so for the technologists and administrators at Irving Independent School District. There, six members of the Technical Services department and numerous campus staff members have made a science of distributing, maintaining, and collecting laptops, doling out more than 9,600 of them to students every year. Theresult is a program that keeps getting better.

At the heart of the laptop program is logistics—a process that begins about a month before school opens, when technologists prepare the computers for distribution, replicating and loading the same hard drive onto each one. Over the next few weeks, the campuses send home paperwork for parents to sign, turning over responsibility for the equipment to their children. A week before school begins, the district collects $50 from each student to support a uniform insurance policy. Finally, in the three days before teachers report for duty, each student must swing by school and pick up a laptop complete with class schedule.

“Everything is transacted before students even think about the first day of class,” says Alice Owen, Irving ISD’s executive director of technology.“The whole idea is to make the computer as much a part ofthe regular school procedures as possible.”

To make sure the system runs smoothly, the district purchased its laptops with full four-year warranties that cover everything from microchips to batteries, and all the pieces in-between. The district has bolstered this investment by covering the cost of Dell repair certification for six of its own technicians; that way, if the need arises, the machines can be fixed in-house. While Owens says that ordinary wear and tear causes most students to have at least one problem with their computers every year, most repairs are handled quickly and painlessly.

Jacob Milner is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.