Fulfilling the promise of ed tech: Laptops spur learning

As schools across America work to lift student achievement, the effect of technology in the classroom remains the subject of heated debate. Our experience in Henrico County, Va., sheds light on the power of technology to improve student learning.

If you want to see how technology expands the bounds of learning, you can look not only in our classrooms, but also at our track meets, school bus stops, and other places around Henrico County where students have their laptops open and their minds engaged. When we witness the effect of providing every student in grades 6-12 and every teacher with a laptop, what is striking is not just where our youngsters are studying but how much they are learning, as their steadily rising scores on rigorous assessments show.

We are now in the third year of this Teaching and Learning Initiative. Whether you take our measure anecdotally or analytically, it is evident that the power of educational technology is fulfilling its promise in Henrico County and creating a community of learners.

Deploying 25,000 wireless-capable laptops has engaged our students, enlivened the learning environment, and moved us toward the kind of equity of opportunity that ought to be at the heart of our democracy.

We believed–and now we can demonstrate–that providing universal access to laptops at the middle and high school level connects students to their school work in powerful new ways. This 24-7 access facilitates the kind of hands-on, creative environment where students learn best.

We wanted to move away from a sedentary learning style to a more constructivist approach. We wanted, that is, fewer lectures and more engaged, active learning using dynamic, current content. We knew from experience that students learn best as active learners.

Today, in many of our classrooms, there is a new sense of discovery and the feel of a research laboratory. Every student has access to a universe of online libraries. A class exploring Italian Renaissance artists, for example, reaches a depth and breadth of study well beyond what they would have been exposed to previously.

As a former biology teacher, I was delighted to observe a lab simulation of a frog dissection that represented a great leap forward over what had been possible before in lab instruction. What had been a once-a-year, two-hour experience was now a learning project that could be taken apart and reassembled in the classroom or at home. It is no surprise that student performance in 10th grade biology has increased dramatically.

Our students benefit from the impressive evolution of online content–from lab simulations to dynamic notation in mathematics to virtual museum tours. At the same time, we continue to see a role for more traditional materials. Technology cannot replace the pleasure of turning the pages of Julius Caesar–or Harry Potter.

Technology can build badly-needed connections between the school and the home. At the middle school level, we have required training for parents before students can get their laptops. Given that parental involvement in education traditionally falls off sharply in the middle and high school years, this training can serve a dual purpose: ensuring proper use of the computer and strengthening the link between family and school.

This initiative is also a force for equal opportunity. Providing every student with a laptop bridges the digital divide. About one-third of our county’s population–and a far higher share of our minority families–lacked home access to the internet before we began this project. Today, the Technology and Learning Initiative provides the opportunity for universal internet access at home for nearly all Henrico County parents.

In the areas where we have used the laptops most extensively, such as English, our students have registered large gains on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) program. On a countywide basis, we have a pass rate of more than 96 percent in English, which at the high school level is a composite of writing, English, and reading. In world history, where our pass rate also exceeds 97 percent, our department chairs and curriculum specialists have developed localized online content.

Every regular school in Henrico County is now fully accredited under the SOL program. Our high school students have improved over the past two years in all 11 of the end-of-year SOL tests. The composite pass rate of these tests now exceeds 90 percent.

While every school district is distinct, our experience suggests that these guiding principles are instrumental to the success of such a program:

Think big.

Even though we had previously expended millions of dollars on technology, we were not having the impact we sought. We concluded that having that impact required a one-to-one ratio between students and computers. We also believed that if we aggressively sought a business partner, we could achieve that ratio.

Find a business partner.

We told potential corporate partners that we could become a living laboratory for the effects of universal student access to high-quality technology. We met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who told us he had been waiting for just such an opportunity on a district-wide basis.

Sweat the details.

The most important detail is the state of the infrastructure. In our first year of deployment, our key issue was network capability.

Listen to and train teachers.

At the heart of our laptop program is a firm commitment to teacher training. Embracing the concept of a learning community means giving teachers the skills and tools they need to be effective. Middle school teachers received their laptops a full year before deployment. By the time students got their computers, the teachers had a very high degree of confidence that they could make this program work.

Enlist the broadest possible support.

Before implementing the program, we met with a leadership team–consisting of principals, teachers, and students–from each of our seven high schools. We told them we were thinking of piloting the laptop program in a few schools. Their response, in every case, was that their school could take on this challenge. Instead of a pilot project, we had a pioneering spirit to carry out this program across the board.

We also met with PTA presidents from every school and with business and community leaders. All groups encouraged us to move forward. When we hit a few bumps on the trail early on, our business community rallied to our side. The laptop program has become a point of pride as well as progress for Henrico County.

Reach out to parents.

We work with parents to increase their capabilities and comfort level with the laptops. Our Parent Resource Centers offer training. At the high school level, parents can receive training in using the laptop, conducting research on the internet, and understanding the security features of the machine. One of the lasting advantages of this program is that it provides an educational resource for the entire family.

Our performance on the SOLs shows how technology can reinforce a commitment to rigorous content and high standards. At the same time, I believe our laptop program creates new possibilities for every student that go beyond what even the best test can measure. The one-on-one opportunity this program creates can become a defining feature of 21st-century schools.

Mark A. Edwards, Ed.D., superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, was a recipient of last year’s eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards. He was also a recipient of this year’s distinguised McGraw Prize in Education.

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