At the beginning of my second year of teaching in Taiwan, we started implementing a one-to-one Apple laptop program. In hindsight, I’m realizing now that we moved incredibly fast–maybe too fast–but we were a small school (a dozen teachers with about 70 students in the secondary department), so we tried to adapt quickly. Since I moved back to Canada more than a year ago, I’ve been meaning to reflect on what we did well and what we could have done differently with this program. This summer, I learned that my new school is thinking of rolling out a similar program next year. I think it’s time to crystallize all those thoughts together and share them.
I’ll start with by describing the issues that arose with the hardware we chose, and follow with a brief explanation of the philosophy that guided our selection of software. These are just the nuts and bolts but getting them assembled well is very important. Finally, I’ll address the (open ended) question of how to foster appropriate use of this technology by the students (and teachers).
Right out front, I’d like to thank three former colleagues of mine with whom I had the great pleasure to work with in Taiwan. Their helping me on an early draft of this post via Google Doc felt just like old times! Thank you so much for all your insightful comments.
The year we made the switch, a little more than four years ago, all classrooms were equipped with an iMac, a projector, and speakers. At the same time, every student had to buy their own Apple laptop. Right there, I think it would have been better to wait a year before introducing the laptops to students. This would have given the teachers time to familiarize themselves with the Mac operating system, and it would have given the IT team a chance to deal with technical issues better. As David put it, it would also have given us a chance to deal with the “human” factor better, bringing in the parents as partners, for example.
The students had a choice to buy either a Macbook, Macbook Pro, or Macbook Air (when that came out). We found that all three served our purposes just as well, except that for the money, a simple Macbook with a RAM upgrade was actually better than a stock Macbook Pro. Today, the white Macbook isn’t sold to the general public anymore, but David tells me that it can still be purchased through the “education” channel for about $1000.
Students who bought a protective hard shell for their computer were less likely to break their computer than students who used a computer case. One particular model of laptop case had the zipper at the opposite end from the handle. A few times, some students forgot to zip their case, grabbed the handle, and sent their laptop flying across the table. Simple things like that can cause a lot of problem if multiplied by 70 students.
Each classroom also had a few power bars scattered around on the floor. Power bars with the outlets oriented sideways were best since they could accommodate more chargers than those with the outlets pointing parallel to the bar. Each classroom had a VGA adapter for the iMac (which also worked with the earlier models of Macbooks). Over the years, we realized that we needed different adapters for the new generations of laptops so that all students could quickly connect their computer to the projector to show their work. Now, Kristen tells me that students no longer use the VGA adapter. Instead, they put the presentation on the server, and project it from the teachers’ computers.
For my classroom, I also bought a few cheap USB microphones for them to podcast or screencast. I found that even a cheap USB mic gave much better results than the internal microphone since it cut off the noise from the fan. This is something each student might have wanted to buy with their computer.
Every year, a few unlucky students lost all their work due to hard drive failure. Our IT department kept a few spare hard drives to quickly fix laptops on the spot and give time to students to buy a new hard drive, but we never managed to implement a successful, campus-wide backup and recovery system for all students. This was a big miss.
During the first year of implementation, we used the software that came “free” with the Apple computers. We soon realized that files created with programs from the iWork and iLife suites could not be opened directly on other operating systems. Some teachers began asking their students to export their files into formats that they could open on their home computers (like pdf).
During the second year of implementation, we began the switch to FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) such as NeoOffice instead of Microsoft Office or iWork. It was very important for us that files created with one system could be shared and opened with any other system so as to ease collaboration and not bind students into a Vendor Lock-in situation. It quickly became easier for students (who were used to the Apple software) to use the FOSS instead of always having to convert their work to open formats after.
Kristen tells me that students now use OpenOffice for Mac instead of NeoOffice because it “is apparently much better”. Whether this is true or not, the beauty of this situation is that documents created with either NeoOffice, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice use the exact same file format and can be opened by all three programs on any kind of computers (Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux). This is a very valuable kind of freedom we want our students to have.
All of our staff was already using Gmail and we had all students who didn’t have their own account get one so that we could use Google Apps with them for collaborative work. We found it worked really well. Google Doc was an excellent way for students to work together, or to share work in progress with their teachers. Some teachers also set up Google Calendars for their classes, etc. Two details are important to note here however. First, the students’ Gmail account was their own and was in no way managed by the school. This was so that students could easily bring their “cloud” work with them after they leave our school. Second, it was tempting to go all out, embrace the cloud completely, and use Google Apps for everything (instead of locally running software for non-collaborative work), but this increased dependence on the network and would have created more problems when the network was slow or not functioning properly. More importantly, we needed to be critical of how much we should trust third party companies such as Google with our information. Here’s an excellent interview about this that I found later from CBC Spark. 
Over the course of the next few years, I created this wiki page  to list programs that should be used. (The list is a little outdated at the moment, but I’ll try to update it again this year.) The underlying idea here is that, as an educational institution, it’s more important to be grounded in sound philosophical principles that promote freedom of learning, than to use whatever is the most convenient tool at the time regardless of future consequences. 
As instances of computer misuse (off-task IMing, torrenting, gaming, etc) started to emerge among the student population (and some of the teachers!), we started debating whether we should add layers of filters to the network and restrictions to the students’ computers to deal with the problem. For example, I am told that recently a parent called the school twice to complain that their child’s Facebook page was being updated during class time.
One proposed solution was to block social networking sites (and a list of other popular “non-educational” sites) and turn on some of the parental control settings on the student computer accounts. Philosophically, we recognized that it was more important to teach students how to use technology appropriately than to turn all Big-Brother on them and enter an endless game of Cat and Mouse with them.
The decision was made not to block websites and restrict computer accounts. Instead, we started working on ways to scaffold this new type of learning for different age groups and individuals. Andrea, for example, had a “laptop parking” shelf in her classroom, where all younger students had to leave their laptops as soon as they entered the class (whether the bell had rung or not). Classrooms became “Academic Use Only” zones even during breaks and lunch to encourage students to be outside instead of playing on their computer. Parental control restrictions were added to a few specific students’ laptops who were struggling more than others.
It would have been much more effective to role out these policies from the get-go, and they would have been even more powerful if students had had a voice in the decision making process. Unfortunately, we reacted to problems as we saw them arise, and students saw the changes we made as added restrictions instead of as age-appropriate measures to help them become better 21st century learners.
During my last year there, there was a change in the administration and the one-to-one program was informally put on hold. There were some discussions as to whether younger students (grade 7 and 8′s) could ever handle such distracting devices in a school setting. A computer, after all, is both a tool and a toy! Personally, I don’t believe age is the critical factor (although it is a big one that must be considered carefully). When I do work, I too get distracted by all the other things my computer has to offer. The same goes for students, except it’s our job to help them learn how to deal with it.
Since then, the school decided to phase out the program for all new students so as to “lighten the financial burden on families”. Students can bring their own laptops if they have them, however. I am not sure what the school’s position is with respect to the larger issue of appropriate use, however.
Although my experience in Taiwan was extremely enriching, I am very curious to see what a fully developed one-to-one program could look like. I hope my experience can help my new school navigate the new challenges that lie ahead, and I’m excited to see just how far it will take us.
Bringing technology into a school to such a high degree must not distract from the primary centre: student learning. New tools with old ways of doing things don’t work. As David and Andrea put it, there has to be systems in place to help teachers not use the technology for its own sake, but to help transform their teaching into project and inquiry based learning.
- Patrick Truchon, Wiki Notes: Software,
- CBC Spark, Full Interview: Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Googlization of Everything,
- Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 1: The Philosophy),