In a previous article, “One-to-One: Shifting Perspectives,” published August 24, 2006, I described some of the challenges faced by trainers and trainees alike when implementing a one-to-one (one computer to one student) program, such as Michigan’s Freedom to Learn (FTL) program. In this article, I’ll focus on some of the lessons those same people have learned in the years they’ve been administering the program.
The first lesson is basic to implementing virtually any program that’s unfamiliar to the school community, and Sarah Harless—FTL “Supercoach,” Assistant to the Principal/Title I Director, and Elementary Title I teacher of sixth-grade Language Arts in Manistee, Michigan—sums it up as well as anyone: “You need to have everyone on board—your parents, your staff, your community, your students.” To that end, Harless helped to facilitate meetings in which she and the other trainers not only described the laptops to parents but also let the parents use them. Figuring that it’d be much easier to get buy-in if parents understood what their children would be doing, and that it’d be much easier for parents to understand what their children would be doing if they could do it themselves, the trainers employed what good teachers do all the time: They modeled. They got their buy-in.
But what about before you even get to the stage of “selling the program” to the community? What do you need to get it off the ground? No one knows how to do that better than Leslie Wilson, FTL’s Director of Professional and Curriculum Development. To Wilson, you need a shared vision (“so the people implementing it know why they’re doing it”) , courageous leadership (“ to ensure that the vision is moving forward”) , and a team approach. At the beginning of the FTL program, several years ago, Wilson felt that some team members were more concerned with the technology than with the curriculum goals. The team didn’t gel until everyone eventually acknowledged the overriding goal of providing opportunities for students to achieve, and then set tangible benchmarks for assessing that goal.
Wilson also set out to expand her team. She partnered with Hewlett Packard, with McREL, with Microsoft, with the University of Memphis, with Education Testing Service, and with other organizations to build a program that extended beyond the Michigan state boundaries. She brought together hardware and software and professional development and evaluation. She brought together tech people and curriculum people and academic people and teachers and administrators. Without that large yet focused team , says Wilson—and she’s seen both good and poor examples in other states—the program is shortsighted.
Shawn Massey, Flint Schools’ director of technology, has implemented FTL in eight elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, about a third of the schools in the district. She’s had similar experiences on a regional level: “Partnerships are essential. Partner with a district, with local universities, with area agencies.” For example, Massey set up a relationship with the University of Michigan-Flint, which helped the district administrators store their carts and laptops and also offered technical assistance in installing the software.
Joe Tinsley and Scott Wooster, Technology Integration Coordinator and Director of Technology, respectively, at Chelsea School District (220 laptops for grade 6 alone), have learned that flexibility can mean the difference between triumph and chaos. The entire first year, the district’s wireless program was regularly throwing students off the network. But Chelsea’s teachers and students were prepared for such eventualities, and they adjusted. “We’ve conditioned them,” says Tinsley, “to where change is the norm.”
This flexibility is crucial in not only the areas of technology and education but also to the many audiences that participate in a program like “one-to-one”: administrators, teachers, parents, students, and school board members. Successful districts have apprised each “constituency” of what’s expected and what may go wrong. Wooster points out that the leadership in particular has to be trained in what to expect from parents, teachers, and students. And Sarah Harless points out that “things going wrong” isn’t the sole domain of electronic equipment: “Even before technology, teachers needed lesson plans. Some of them work, some of them don’t.”
Shawn Massey says, “Don’t be rigid. Flexibility is key. Risk-taking is okay. The unknown is a wonderful place if you allow it to be. You can operate in the unknown and do great things, because you don’t know what you’re capable of.” All well and good, but Massey doesn’t advocate entering a program like FTL blindly; preparation is a lesson she learned in her four years with the program. She thinks it’s important, for example, to check out buildings for wiring and capacity before installing the programs. Her colleague, Derek Jones, urges would-be users of one-to-one programs to “test the image out before spreading it through the district. . . . Take a month, two months, three months. Get teachers involved.” In sum: When it comes to hardware and software, be flexible, but be prepared.
The lessons in brief:
- Have a shared vision.
- Expand the team.
- Establish partnerships.
- Be flexible.
- Be prepared.
And the payoffs? Aside from the increased achievement levels (Sarah Harless says, “I almost feel that I’m getting better students”), the payoffs come in anecdotes, glimpses of a program working to its full potential. When teachers no longer want jobs in schools without laptops (Chelsea School District), that’s a payoff. When students with behavioral and academic problems now ask to take laptops home to work on projects (Manistee School District), that’s a payoff. As Shawn Massey says, “I’ve walked down a hallway in a school and gotten goose bumps.” Why? It’s because teachers were standing in front of the class as they traditionally have done, but students were now grouped around laptops—excitedly pointing out this, remarking on that, suggesting one thing or another. Ironically, “one-to-one” learning fosters collaboration—and genuine enthusiasm.
“There are no more walls,” says Massey. “It’s amazing when this works well.”
What’s the future of one-to-one learning? That’s the subject of the next article in this series.