Why Digital Classrooms Fail
A lot of schools want to replace textbooks with tablets. But at $1,000 tax dollars a device, they risk becoming overpriced pencils for note-taking -- unless the proper support structure is first in place.
This is the second of a two-part series and explores the idea of giving every student a tablet. Part 1 looked laptop programs from the past, which offered glimpse of technology's impact on learning and grades. In this article, we take a deeper look at promising tablet programs, and what they've done to succeed.
Educators come to roam the halls in Mooresville, N.C., often at their own expense, in search of the secret formula to integrate tablets in their classroom. The town is an educational tablet success, according to Department of Education officials. In 2011, nine-in-ten students graduated, up from eight just three years ago. And around 90 percent passed state reading, math and science proficiency tests, up from around 75 percent in 2008.
But perhaps Mooresville greatest success was keeping a lid on costs: it spent just $7,400 on each student per year, ranking 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina.
Mooresville, along with Peoria Notre Dame Catholic High School and the Kohelet Foundation in New Jersey and Philadelphia -- are producing smarter kids with tablet programs. But what are they doing right? We'll look at six strategies that are paying off.
1. It's Not the Tablet, It's the Classroom
Creating a digital classroom means more that handing kids a few tablets. Teachers need to redefine the relationship in the class and change the way they interact and engage with students. And that starts with the way teachers teach.
In the traditional setting, teachers stand in front of the chalkboard, while kids sit at their desks, blankly staring at textbooks. But for successful digital classrooms, kids don't just learn from lectures, they learn in small groups. Teachers can use tablets to crowdsource, for example, polling, voting and brainstorming on the causes for the Civil War. The students fuel the discussion, and teachers only swoop in when they need guiding or consulting.
"This is not about the technology," Mark Edwards, Mooresville's superintendent, told the New York Times. "It's not about the box. It's about changing the culture of instruction -- preparing students for their future, not our past."
Tablet give teachers the tools to direct and oversee, effectively becoming the scaffold to support active learning.
2. Put the Support Structure in First
Successful digital schools put a premium on supporting teachers, students and families. Teachers can and will change their methods, but they need to get more comfortable with tablets. And good programs often carve out spaces for them to share and inspire each other.
In fact, some schools spend the summer -- or up to a year -- to introduce, explain and practice digital teaching concepts. These districts don't just add extra duties to teaching responsibilities, but often create a dedicated tech staff to aid the instructors. In addition, teachers often schedule regular meetings share digital tips and fun techniques, and compare notes to see if students are actually learning and not speeding through.
But community involvement is also critical. Schools with the best programs often host parent nights during the digital rollout, and follow-up with periodic meetings to touch base.
3. Invest in Infrastructure
If teachers, students and parents jump on the digital bandwagon, schools need to invest in their networks to support the added bandwidth and boost networks. Infrastructure -- and the funding to support it -- must be in place for the program to work.
But in times of tight budgets, funding is often already stretched thin. To hire a tech staff, schools often cut other positions or programs, and increase class sizes. Schools also free up funds by cutting computer labs and old-fashioned expenses for worksheets, maps and globes, just to name a few.
In the end, schools can often find the money to give each student a tablet, but unless the support system is set up first, those dollars will be squandered, and the program will fail.
4. Give Students a Sense of Ownership
Some districts worry about increased repair costs and don't let kids take their tablets home. But according to research and anecdotal data, they need to have tablets 24/7 to see the best improvement in grades and test scores. Using them only during class hours would defeat the purpose of buying them in the first place.
Instead, schools can and should let kids take tablets home. They can ask them to sign contract sheets, complete with expectations for care and treatment, to foster a sense of privilege. In fact, many schools actually report lower repair costs with ownership, since they feel a greater responsibility for taking care of their device.
Families, too, can help cover costs. Some schools ask for a small subsidy, around $50 a year, for example, to hold in case of repairs. And, in poorer districts where home Internet isn't commonplace, districts can often negotiate for cheaper rates on broadband service -- at around $10 a month.
5. Embrace Technology
Kids today are digital natives; they've grown up online, so they learn about tech faster than teachers and administrators. Seasoned educators are often intimidated by tech and they often grasp onto traditional tools like scripted lectures and textbook lessons to maintain their sense of authority and power in the classroom. But they need to truly integrate digital tools into their methods for these programs to succeed.
"By spending my time modeling what I believe is important, it allows the staff to get on board," said Charlie Roy, principal of Peoria Notre Dame High School, who also leads technology-teaching strategy sessions. "I won't ask you to do something that I won't do or be willing to learn to do."
Or, as superintendent Edwards said, "You have to trust kids more than you've ever trusted them." That means teachers must get on board and give up some control -- often a scary thought, but necessary in order for these programs to succeed.
6. Tinker and Tweak the Classroom
Tablets not only affect the way teachers and students think, but also how they interact. Instructors, for example, can gauge the progress of each student, using computerized feedback tools. The software alerts them when a child needs support -- such as one-on-one time -- without pausing to interrupt the classroom's learning.
A room of students with their own digital window to the world is very different from a group that's passively arranged in desks to hear a lecture or see a blackboard. Successful digital schools understand that, and tweak and experiment in ways to set up classrooms. Good teachers, too, don't just sit at their desks. They walk around during discussions, making sure to keep students on task and engaged.
People involved with successful programs say it's an ongoing struggle -- a journey that neither begins nor ends with just promising devices. Schools that understand smarter kids means more than just handing out tablets are often more likely to succeed. They integrate innovation with tried-and-true traditional methods, share helpful tips and techniques and put kids at the center to create the best environment to reap the most reward.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦