12 Tips for Launching a Wireless Laptop Program

The technology director for East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn., a federal government test site for laptop learning, shares his secrets to a successful implementation.

  1. Build a Wireless Foundation
    The first option for creating a wireless infrastructure is to mount access points on portable laptop carts. The second, and better, choice is to strategically place access points throughout the entire school building. In addition to making it possible for special education students who are routinely pulled out of their regular classrooms to use their computers, providing 100 percent wireless coverage also ensures maximum flexibility in emergency situations—when the heating goes down in a classroom, for instance, and kids have to relocate to the library or cafeteria.
  2. Choosing a Laptop
    Please do not choose the cheapest model out there because of budget constraints! This can backfire. The following are essential technical requirements: brand name computer with a 3-year warranty; 512MB; built-in wireless cards; durable construction (magnesium alloy case); long battery life; clear and visible screen from all angles; and lightweight for ease of use.
  3. The Correct Cart
    A sturdy and durable cart for housing your laptops is crucial. Another way to think about it: with laptops costing $1,100 to $2,000 each, one cart protects over $30,000 worth of school assets. With that in mind, the model you choose should offer secure construction with strongest possible locks, built-in charging capabilities with surge suppressor, fully welded construction, long power cords, and reconfigurable module shelves.
  4. Network Infrastructure
    Your laptops will work at peak performance if these conditions are met: proper CAT 5 wiring; fiber optic backbone; quality network switches and access points; high-speed broadband connection; and reliable and efficient servers.
  5. Foolproof Configuration
    Here are four simple steps for avoiding configuration glitches: (1) before you give out any laptops decide on all the curriculum products and other software you'll be using during the year and make one perfect copy; (2) create a clone of this perfect image by copying to CDs for installation; (3) install the image to all other laptops for deployment or when a laptop fails; and (4) install desktop security software on all laptops to prevent hacking.
  6. Additional Security Measures
    Assign individual usernames and passwords to students and staff members, as opposed to a generic one. Then configure a personal drive (P drive) for each user so they can save work to the school's server instead of relying on a hard, floppy, or thumb drive. Finally, be sure to label all your laptops and cart shelves using an automatic labeler with self-adhesive tape. This eliminates confusion and provides an added measure of accountability.
  7. Storing and Charging
    Storing your laptops in a safe and secure cart (see tip #3) will prevent theft. It's imperative that students are trained to return their laptop to the same marked shelf every day and be responsible for plugging them in the charger.
  8. Professional Development
    Provide staff with their laptops first and train them months in advance of student deployment. At East Rock, for example, the staff had the summer to play with the laptops and then received two months of professional development. Continual training—weekly or monthly sessions with the technology facilitator—should be scheduled throughout the year. A useful approach is to meet with small groups of laptop teachers for two-hour sessions within the school day or after school.
  9. Parent Orientation
    Send out a letter informing all parents that their child will be using a laptop and a mandatory meeting will take place. At the meeting, give parents a taste for what the laptops will be used for by presenting sample lessons, homework assignments, and Web sites. Provide them with the Acceptable Use Policy and have them sign a permission form allowing their child to participate in the program.
  10. Student Deployment
    Give the laptops to students on a gradual basis (e.g., one grade level every two weeks). Training should include a big-picture discussion about how the technology actually works, rules and regulations such as how to carry the laptop and acceptable uses, and instruction on basic keyboarding and networking skills.
  11. Staff Buy-In
    Teachers will be convinced laptops are useful and effective in the classroom if there's ongoing professional development; the technology facilitator is available on an as-needed basis during the day; and broken or malfunctioning laptops are fixed within a few days (having five loaners available for every 100 laptops deployed is recommended).
  12. The Biggest Secret of All
    The technology coordinator needs to model 21st century lessons to teachers and show them how to transform traditional teaching methods by substituting the use of laptop instruction—for example, integrating reading, writing, social studies, and technology literacy skills into one one-hour lesson. In short, don't make technology an add-on to teachers' already burdened load of instructional tasks! To see sample lessons, visit eastrock.org/units.htm.

Domenic A. Grignano is the technology facilitator and systems engineer at East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn.

Additional information on East Rock's laptop program can be found at eastrock.org, including a full-length article, "Creating a Successful Laptop Program," first published in the Classroom Connect Newsletter.