by Ellen Ullmann
Each spring, Walled Lake (MI) Consolidated School District kicks off its ten-year-old Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL) Laptop Program with an orientation meeting for parents of fifth graders. At the meeting, parents learn about the 1:1 laptop program, in which students use their computers to learn about everything from databases to digital storytelling to video creation.
What makes this 1:1 program unique, however, is that students are encouraged to buy their own laptops.
How It Works
The district laptop - available through a local reseller - includes extra RAM, an extended battery, a three-year accident-protection plan, a loaner laptop (if necessary), Microsoft Office Professional, and a three-year subscription to anti-virus protection. It costs about $300 less than a comparable laptop.
Families can buy from another vendor as long as the laptop meets the district’s specifications and they understand that they are responsible for handling any problems.
The district offers financial assistance for high-needs families, and it has also leased 5,000 HP desktops and laptops. That way everyone learns the essential computing skills. “No matter what, students have access to the school-owned PCs. They just can’t bring them home,” says Pam Shoemaker, instructional technology coordinator.
For this school year, parents could choose between an HP Mini Note 2140 for $981 and an HP 6730s for $1,181. Network administrator Mark Williams says that about 70 percent of the families purchased from the recommended vendor.
Although children can’t be guaranteed protection from H1N1 or the seasonal flu, their computers stay healthy thanks to an ASA firewall and DeepNines content filtering. Each machine is required to have antivirus protection. In addition, students learn about proper computer usage and how to be smart Internet citizens. “We count on teachers to keep an eye on what’s going on in class, since they use the computers so much,” says Williams.
The technology department’s ongoing reports catch any spyware, which is then handled by that school’s computer-resource teacher (CRT). If there’s a problem with any PC, the teacher fills out a service-request form that asks which troubleshooting strategies have already been performed. Says Dennis Keeney, director of technology, “We want people to experiment and to understand how to undo mistakes.”
“Kids can mess their computers up big-time,” adds Williams, “but we can easily re-image and start over.”
The Dreaded Social-Networking Sites
The staff is aware that most students visit Facebook and MySpace at home, though they aren’t allowed to at school. That’s where the mandatory updated virus protection comes in. A few years back, a virus did manage to cause havoc, says Williams. “I created several how-to video tutorials on how to set up for Windows updates, since viruses typically can’t get in if you keep up with those updates.”
Of course, communication with parents helps on this and other fronts. Through trial and error, the district figured out which systems work. Today the Web site has a ton of information, and parents sign up for grade-level listservs. The student information system, Skyward Student Management Suite, includes an online grade book that parents and students can log in to. In addition, most teachers have Web sites on which they post assignments.
Maintaining the Laptop Fleet
During two weeks each summer, students bring their laptops in to have printers installed and network settings configured. “This way everyone’s ready to go at the start of the year,” says Williams. Since different kinds of laptops come in, some of the configurations, such as wireless settings, can take longer, but the overall time saved is a blessing. Families who purchase from the district-recommended vendor pick up their preconfigured laptops in August.
To help the technology department maintain all the laptops, Walled Lake recruits high-school juniors and seniors to serve as interns. Jenny Griffith, who manages the intern program, expands on its benefits. “The students take a two-year program and graduate with Cisco certification and plenty of hands-on experience,” she says. In fact, they are the ones who re-image every one of the 3,000 school-owned laptops.
During the year, interns fulfill technology needs for an assigned school. They are graded on their performance and are paid the minimum wage. “It’s kind of like having a part-time job,” says Keeney. “They get eight to 10 hours of work experience each week helping the CRTs with maintenance and troubleshooting.”
Before the internship program, the district subcontracted with a company to do all its imaging work, which ran to thousands of dollars. Even worse, the company couldn’t customize the work. “The subcontractors would put all 23 printers on each laptop. Now each laptop gets what it needs. It’s a better product at half the price,” says Griffith.
For districts thinking of replicating Walled Lake’s system, there are three main areas to figure out: funding, infrastructure, and professional development. “You can’t just hand out laptops and expect that everything will be great,” says Shoemaker. “It takes lots of work.”