As the first month of Empire High School’s ambitious technology experiment draws to a close, Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker talked with eSchool News about the school’s early trials and successes and offered these five “lessons learned” for the benefit of other administrators who might consider similar projects.
1. Understand that teacher support is critical.
That’s why, instead of foisting the idea of a paperless learning environment on students and educators, Vail established Empire as an alternative high school, giving students the choice of enrolling and accepting applications from teachers who were ready and willing to accept the challenge of moving to a fully digital curriculum. “There is a real value to having a core group of teachers who have had time to fully investigate technology as a resource,” Baker said.
2. Avoid the myth that most students are proficient at basic computer skills.
Though almost every student has had some experience with a computer, Baker explained, not every child is proficient in such rudimentary tasks as saving documents and uploading or downloading educational files from a central server. Before you get started, he said, remember students and teachers first must grasp the basics.
3. Put measures in place to keep kids on task.
If the goal is to use technology as a device for learning, you can’t give students free reign of their computers. To keep students from veering off task, Baker said, educators at Empire have disabled all chat and instant-messaging functions on students’ computers. While the free flow of information that comes with the pervasiveness of always-on technology can be a good thing, he said, it can also be a distraction. And schools need to know when–and where–to draw the line.
4. Communicate expectations to students and parents up front.
Don’t just hand the technology out and tell students to have at it, Baker said. Rather than give the computers to students directly, Empire administrators required students to leave their machines at school for the first week. The school then held a mandatory meeting, where school officials had an opportunity to sit down with parents in small, class-size groups to review the curriculum and answer any questions regarding the school’s acceptable-use policy and other important procedures, Baker said. When the meeting adjourned, the laptops were distributed to parents, who then took them home to their children.
5. Establish community-wide buy-in.
No technology program can expect to achieve success without the support of the school community at large, Baker said, and that includes parents and students. In the case of Empire, “every single participant was willing to help make this a success,” he explained. “The concept of ownership that comes with a program like this cannot be overemphasized.”