One-to-One in the Heartland
8/15/2007 By: Tom McHale
from Technology & Learning
In part six of our one-to-one profiles, T&L shows how personal tablets have impacted a rural Kansas town.
Osawatomie School District placed Gateway tablet PCs in the hands of its students and found this rural Kansas community transformed.
Faced with a school district low in technological resources and a new and expanding online state assessment system, Osawatomie School District's Gary French had to make a decision: add more high school computer labs to the existing overbooked three or go in a new direction.
After weighing the options, this small-town Kansas district superintendent decided to take the plunge and purchase more than 400 Gateway M275 Tablet PCs for high school faculty and students. (Tablets were chosen for their functionality—the "inking" feature allows them to be used as digital notebooks as well as laptop computers.) The machines were distributed at the beginning of the 2005 school year, and the computer labs were closed down.
In the state of Kansas, school districts are provided funding through general-fund money, which is based on student population and weighted for the percentage of at-risk students (amounting to about $4,500 per student in Osawatomie). The budget was increased for this initiative through local funding.
Although Osawatomie is a poor district—more than 50 percent of its students qualifying for the free or reduced school lunch program—the community voted to allow the district to increase the budget by as much as 25 percent, with $175,000 going to lease payments for the one-to-one program. French believes this was due to support from local business and to Osawatomie's tax levy being lower than it is in neighboring districts. Since most of the district's poorer residents don't own their homes, the tax burden on them was minimized.
Assistant Technology Director Zach Henry works to help Osawatomie's 42 teachers integrate this new technology into the classroom through informal discussions with teachers during prep periods and through more traditional in-service training. The district holds six in-service days throughout the year, with a part of each devoted to technology training. This training might involve learning how to use software like the course-management application Moodle—one of the mainstays of Osawatomie's classroom—or new management techniques for classrooms where students have wireless Internet access at their fingertips.
Classroom management was one of the bumps in the road Osawatomie experienced in the first months of implementing the program. Teachers were issued their tablets only a few days before students, and Henry says many said they felt unprepared to integrate this new technology into the classroom. They complained that students were off task, playing games or surfing the Internet. "I think teachers felt rushed," he says. "They didn't feel properly trained at that point."
The technology team at Osawatomie learned from this experience and worked to change the culture of the classroom. They now encourage teachers to create more student-centered environments where kids are challenged to use technology as a tool for learning rather than entertainment. "It's less about imparting knowledge than teaching them how to find it," Henry says.
In working with teachers, Henry tries to choose successful implementations to model, and to address their issues and questions. He realizes teachers can't be forced to use the technology. "The biggest obstacle that you face is teachers thinking one-to-one is simply going to be more work," he says.
Superintendent French agrees, noting that teacher buy-in is crucial to the success of the program. He doesn't believe in dictating policy to force teachers to use technology. Instead, the technology should be there to support a diverse array of teaching strategies. Teachers need to choose which techniques are the most effective means of delivering content rather than blindly relying on technology. "If it's not helping them learn, don't use it," French says.
How It's Working
Osawatomie has come a long way since the early days of the program's implementation. Now, after its second year, Henry notices students more engaged in their learning. "You see kids helping each other and looking for information, and they are much more self-sufficient," he says.
One way students can collaborate is through Moodle. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of teachers use Moodle as a classroom portal. This open-source software allows them to post handouts, assignments, presentations, and even audio lectures. It can also host chat rooms for online discussions and conduct surveys and quizzes—and it includes wikis for collaborative writing, along with blogs and other online activities. "It's a lot like Blackboard, except that it's free," Henry says.
Moodle is updated and expanded through educator input. Registered users range from the elementary to college level and are based in 127 countries, according to the company's Web site. The application is based on a social constructivist philosophy of learning, and Henry sees its open-source Web 2.0 technology as a significant trend in education. He tries to get teachers to use Moodle at least once during the school year. "Once they use it, they realize its potential," he says. Putting a tablet computer into the hands of each high school student has had an unexpected effect on this rural community. With the availability of both DSL and broadband, parents are able to shop for value in an Internet provider for students who bring their tablets home. "It has generated a lot of interest in Internet access at home," Henry says.
Beyond Moodle, each tablet in Osawatomie comes loaded with Windows XP Tablet Edition, which includes OneNote, Microsoft Office, and other applications. The district also purchased Aglix's GoBinder, which students use as a digital notebook (similar to OneNote), taking handwritten notes using the tablet's inking capability. It also allows students to create digital notepaper from documents, PowerPoints, PDF files, and Web pages that can be saved and manipulated.
Both Henry and French see the current initiative continuing beyond the district's current four-year lease with Gateway. They hope to update half of the tablets to Gateway's M285 at the end of the 2008 school year, which will help solve a problem with battery life—many of the two year-old M275 models only last one hour before they need recharging.
But Osawatomie's goals remain largely unchanged from the beginning of this initiative: to provide students with 21st-century tools for learning and to incorporate these tools seamlessly into the classroom. French says it's a mistake to think that one-to-one is a magic bullet that will transform the classroom and raise test scores. "I would not ever think we are going to spend $175,000 simply to help our student test scores," he says. Rather, helping
them learn and gain technology skills in the process is definitely worth the investment. And the kids seem to be responding. "Students' ability to have access to their files and the Internet is pretty attractive right now," says French. "I think we would have a fight on our hands if we tried to take it away."
Tom McHale is an educator in New Jersey.