For 42 Egan Junior High School students, binders and notebooks are about to become a thing of the past. The seventh- and eighth-graders are preparing to use laptops in the classroom and at home on a daily basis as part of a pilot program initiated in the Los Altos School District.
Integrating technology into the classroom is becoming a priority for the district located in the heart of Silicon Valley. This year, the district also launched The Einstein Project, designed to teach technology to K-8 students – and teachers – throughout the district.
The cost to the district for these innovative programs? Not much. The Los Altos Educational Foundation (LAEF), PTAs and parents at the district schools will fund the grassroots projects, including a newly created two-year position of technology specialist.
One-to-one laptop program
In December, the Egan students are scheduled to begin the one-to-one laptop program. The parents of each student have agreed to lease a laptop from the district for use at school and at home.
District officials believe that when students have access to a computer beyond the classroom day, it will become a personal tool that supports their ability to gain easy access to their schoolwork and teachers' Web sites, including directions, support material and examples of projects to demonstrate what is required.
"We are trying to figure out if owning a one-to-one laptop is superior to using the mobile laptop cart," said Brenda Dyckman, Egan principal who helped spearhead the pilot program. "We believe that the students' quality of work will increase."
Students participating in the program will have access to their personal laptops in the classrooms only when fellow Egan students access the mobile laptop carts teachers use for specific lessons. The mobile laptops are available to an entire classroom to integrate technology into everyday lessons, but they don't leave the campus.
By having the laptop beyond the school day, Dyckman hopes students will increase their organizational skills by using it as a productivity tool to manage their personal academic calendar and schedule and to communicate with other students.
The district uses laptops as an enhancement to teacher delivery, adding visuals and sources to demonstrate lessons. Students also may use the laptops for research and technology-based projects.
"To me, you can't prepare your students to be 21st-century human beings and not provide them instruction on how to use laptops as a work and social tool," Dyckman said.
In an effort to keep students more organized, teachers at Egan assign homework on a public Google Calendar. Students can check homework for all their classes at once and parents have access to assignments.
Dyckman said with individual laptops, students could bookmark the Google Calendar for homework, increasing the likelihood that they would reference it.
The principal expects the pilot program will become a three-year program that will be introduced in elementary school.
"I think there is a place for technology in all grades, but in terms of really owning it and utilizing it in a unique way, it starts in sixth grade," Dyckman said.
Funds for the pilot program come solely from the parents who lease the laptops. The parents of students in the program are required to pay $1,500 for a two-year lease. They can make monthly payments or pay all at once. At the end of the lease, when the student is ready to graduate from junior high, the family can purchase the laptop from the district for $10.
Dyckman said that beginning next year, she hopes to have the necessary funding to provide some scholarships for the program.
The Apple MacBooks go through an imaging process that ensures they are configured for consistency and security. Laptops are authenticated for Egan network access and the proper software.
The Einstein Project
"If we teach today's students as we did yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow," said education reformer John Dewey – 50 years ago. But for the Los Altos School District, this call to action sounds as urgent as ever.
"Children today are far more visually attuned, even compared to five years ago," said Jeff Baier, district assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "You can pine for the good old days when students primarily learned by reading textbooks, or you can accommodate the new learning models and take advantage of those skills and interests students bring with them to the classroom."
In a series of parent education evenings last month, Baier and several district teachers presented The Einstein Project, a cutting-edge program that integrates technology in the classrooms for pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.
"It's not enough to hand teachers computers, because they just become a fancy typewriter," Baier said. "Technology has the potential to give students greater ownership in their education, so they can actually produce knowledge, not just memorize facts and recite them back – but only if the teachers have the skills and the time to enhance their lesson plans."
The Einstein Project starts with nuts-and-bolts technology training in the use of hardware and software, areas in which many teachers lagged far behind the pupils they were instructing. In addition, the district coaches teachers on applying the technology to change the way they teach, and facilitates teachers' sharing ideas and lesson plans with colleagues.
This year, parent donations to LAEF allowed the district to dedicate one technology-literate teacher, Samantha Thai, to the special assignment of spreading "best practices" throughout Los Altos schools.
Beth Leach, a fifth-grade teacher at Almond School, was one of the first to go through The Einstein Project training.
"Before, using technology meant we went to the computer lab and students typed something," Leach said.
Now, however, when teaching an assignment on how to write a news story, Leach has her students write the script to create a podcast or audio broadcast of the news.
"This stirs up a ton of excitement," she said. "Every kid is totally engaged – I see better effort and a better work product. Even reluctant writers have no hesitation about writing, because they really want to do the podcast."
Leach finished by playing student podcasts from the laptop computer that Thai brought to the presentations.
Lori Loftus, a fifth-grade teacher at Covington School, also finds her students are more engaged when she brings technology into the class.
"I used to have kids make a poster as the culmination of our social studies unit on Native Americans," she said. "But now they use Keynote (an electronic presentation program similar to PowerPoint), and I see them thinking and working at a deeper level."
Loftus' students work together to find new ways to use the presentation software, such as incorporating music and using various techniques to transition from one slide to another.
"Kids who wouldn't interact on the playground are forming friendships in the classroom by showing each other how to do things on the computer," she said.
Both teachers commented on the way technology changes the pupil-teacher dynamic in the classroom.
"Unlike when I teach them a math lesson, I don't have all the answers when we use the computers, and the kids pick up on that and work even harder to figure out solutions on their own," Loftus said.
"I've changed the way I teach," Leach said. "I'm more of a facilitator. The kids themselves are discerning what's relevant and how best to present it."
"Technology can change the classroom from teacher-centered to student-centered," said Thai, an Almond School teacher assigned this year as a curriculum integration specialist, helping her colleagues throughout the district rewrite lesson plans to incorporate various digital teaching tools.
"When was the last time you heard kids say, â€˜Wow, this is cool!' about learning vocabulary?" said Leach, who has been using tools like these in her classroom for several years now.
Baier pointed out that technology creates new teaching requirements.
"We need to help kids become discriminating consumers of information, making judgments about the information sources they find," he said.
Leach offered an example: For a science report on volcanoes her students completed last year, "the kids had to look for information, and when they found it, they had to tell me how they know it is true – for instance, (online encyclopedia) Wikipedia gets a â€˜maybe,' while National Geographic's Web site is better."
A perennial problem for California public schools is that everything costs money, which budget-strapped school districts don't have. Individual PTAs primarily purchased the computers. LAEF paid the expense of teacher training and the curriculum specialist and also funds technology specialists to handle computer support and the general school computer labs.
"Jeff and his team figured out the minimum they needed to keep Einstein going, and LAEF is working hard to raise the money to fund it because we know how much people in our community value both technology and education," said Teresa Kersten, president of the LAEF Board of Directors.
Katie Roper serves on the board of the Los Altos Educational Foundation.