K-5 Teachers Have Full Control in Wisc. School's Computer Lab

Rawson Elementary School in South Milwaukee, Wisc., made significant investments in its computer lab about two years ago, only to discover that many instructors felt uncomfortable interacting with students in the lab. First, teachers reported that they could not easily hand out an assignment to all the students and ask them to immediately begin working on it. Instead, they often had to spend 10-15 minutes before class copying various files to each computer and loading the appropriate application software. Then, after class, they would do the reverse, copying files to a disk or server, quitting the application and shutting down the computers -- a real time killer. In addition, teachers complained they could not control what students did at their computers. For example, there was no way to prevent youngsters from opening random files rather than working on the assignment. Nor could a teacher compel the class to pay attention when she spoke. Obstacles to Learning Contrary to early expectations, collaborative learning decreased in the lab setting. Instructors spent most of their allotted time walking around to each computer, checking on students' progress. When they wanted to share their own work or that of a student with the class, they would disrupt all activity and direct everyone to crowd around a single monitor. The solution to these problems came in November 1995, when Rawson Elementary installed Lancaster, interactive teaching software for Macintosh labs, from COMPanion Corp. (Salt Lake City, Utah). The program lets a teacher completely control student workstations from a simple Console Window on her machine. With Lancaster, an instructor can send and receive files such as quizzes and homework across the network. If desired, files will automatically open on student workstations when sent. To collect work, the teacher presses the File Grab button -- eliminating the need to scurry around the room and pick up papers. Electronic Portfolios for each class member facilitate the management of student work and demonstration of progress to parents and administrators. Jim Frazee, Rawson's principal, says the teachers who previously resisted new technologies have benefited the most from Lancaster's automated features. Frazee says the technology coordinator initially moved slowly in introducing staff to the new software. Representatives from COMPanion even visited the campus to provide on-site training. He adds, however, that after a brief learning curve teachers "began to take off and run with it." Teri Provencher, a 5th grade teacher, says she uses Lancaster to observe students' work in progress, offering individualized help if a problem arises. She says those with difficulties are not as embarrassed because she no longer has to make frequent trips to their desks to privately interact with them. (Students can raise an "electronic hand" to request assistance.) Provencher adds that Lancaster prevents diversions from the assignment, whether accidental or intentional. "Before, you always had to worry that kids would abuse computer privileges," she recalls. Now, she simply locks her class into a particular application to ensure that they focus on the work at hand. Another highlight of Lancaster is the ability to "broadcast" the teacher's or any student's screen to every workstation in the lab. Ruth Horbinski, another 5th-grade teacher, says she demonstrates new educational software to her students by letting them observe her actions from their own computers, then allows them to practice what they just saw. Furthermore, when Horbinski requires undivided attention, she "freezes" students' workstations, prompting them to make eye contact with her. Or, she may choose to lower the volume level of their machines simultaneously -- again just by a mouse click. Tracks Application Usage Principal Frazee points out another benefit of Lancaster: its system for tracking application, printer and computer usage. Graphs and statistics show, for instance, which applications are rarely or never used. This allows Frazee to make informed decisions when it comes time to ordering software upgrades or applying for technology grants. Frazee says Rawson Elementary School's computer lab is sure to stay busy in the fall 1996 semester. All 30 machines recently were connected to the Internet, which will enable teachers to "broadcast" -- in real time -- text, video and audio from the Web. "This is software that's got a lot of potential," he concludes.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.