Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

20 reasons not to use a one to one laptop program in your school (and some solutions)

We have a 1 to 1 program right now at the school I’m at, and there are a lot of problems with it.  Initially I was for the program, but I am becoming more and more against it, especially with the current way our program is run.  Let me list the problems I’ve discovered so far:

  1. Classroom management while students are "taking notes with their computers" is an issue.  I think installing a gigantic mirror at the back of the classroom would be ideal.
  2. Classroom management issues while the students are supposed to be working on exercises using the CD version of their textbook, or a calculator emulator, when in fact they are searching the internet deciding what shoes they are going to buy on the weekend.
  3. MSN Messenger, Skype, Google Chat, etc… name your poison here.
  4. Transition times between activities increase as you wait for the students to reboot/boot their computer, plug in their power cord, comb their hair etc…
  5. Exceptionally slow internet at our school since every student is actively connected to the internet all the time.
  6. Our wireless hotspots only support 15 active connections.  We have as many as 26 students in a class.  You do the math.
  7. Students don’t maintain their computers properly, leading to the spreading of malware, viruses, etc… through USB sticks.
  8. Since some students have malware installed, our network takes a hit as it has to defend itself against internal intruder programs searching the local network for active ports.  Every day I have 10-12 port scans that my firewall blocks.
  9. Students don’t keep their software up to date.
  10. Students don’t even keep the right software on their computer.  Equation editor is SUPPOSED to be standard in M$ Word, but hey some students have got it uninstalled… heck some students don’t even have a word processor on their computer.
  11. Students don’t have the same software on their computers.  For example, I have seen Firefox 2, Firefox 3, Safari 2, Safari 3, Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7, Google Chrome, Opera in action, all at the same time, in the same class.
  12. Students don’t know how to do "fill in the blank" on their computer, so class time is spent trouble-shooting rather than on instruction.
  13. Laptops are stolen, about 3% of them each semester.  Combination of laisse-faire attitude by students and poor security at the school.
  14. Students forget their laptops/power cords/brains at home/in locker/in canteen
  15. Three different operating systems in use.  Yes, some students are using Linux.
  16. Of the three distinctly different operating systems in use there are 3 flavours of Windows, 2 of Linux, and 3 of MAC currently in use.  Now I’m supposed to be an expert on all 8 of these flavours and plan my lessons for minor incompatibilities between them because why?
  17. "I just need to print out X for my Y class.  Can I go do it now during your [unimportant] lesson?"
  18. Students forget passwords, even for their own computers at times.  The most common one for the students to forget is the one for the wireless or for my classroom blog.
  19. The laptops are heavy.  Textbooks are heavy.  Some of my students have back problems already at an early age from carrying too much to and from school.
  20. Most teachers lack training on how to use the 1 to 1 program effectively.  We need time to be trained in optimal pedagogical techniques involving the use of technology, provided with classroom management strategies, and shown with some proof that the technology is worth using.

There are some simple solutions to these problems.

  1. Don’t let the students buy their own computers.  Either buy all of the computers for the students or require them to buy a specific model.  They need to be using exactly the same software, hardware, etc… 

    This is less important now that more applications are on the web or cross platform.
  2. Make the school in charge of installing software on the student computers.  This works better if they are actually the school’s computers and you are renting them out to the students for the year.  This way you can ensure that no games, chat programs, peer to peer file sharing programs, http proxy tunnel clients, etc… get installed on their computers. 

    This approach is too top-heavy. Recommendation instead is to make sure that teachers are aware of these issues, and then have them focus on effective teaching; which means helping students learn about appropriate timing.
  3. Have a way for the teacher to turn off access to the internet when they need.  Could be as simple as a light switch which turns off the nearest wireless box (have one wireless box per room, configure it to a minimum radius, maximum number of active connections).

    This seems kind of crazy now. So many of the applications we use are online. 

  4. Don’t use Windows until they can prove that it is as secure as the other Unix based systems.  Go with Linux and a bunch of open source software, or go for Mac and pay through the nose, either way works.

    We’ve had many less problems with viruses here at my current school, so I think that either virus protection software has gotten better, or Windows 7 is much more secure than Windows XP.

  5. Have some common sense when planning the layout of your classrooms.  Install electricity outlets in convenient locations, either right in the tables the students are using or on the floor.  Make sure there are enough outlets to go around.  Heck, put an ethernet cable port right next to each outlet and forget about wireless all together.

    I still agree with this one. Plan ahead. I think robust wireless networks have gotten easier to set up, and so the ethernet cables are less necessary. Still, it took us almost 6 months to get our wireless network stable.

  6. Make sure students are all given training on how to most effectively use their computers.  It is the job of a school to help students learn how to use these powerful devices, but to be honest, the typical classroom teacher isn’t up to the job, and they’ll be the first to admit it.  This training should happen in an information technology course taught as a core subject.  Each student should take this course each year they are in school.

    We integrate technology at my current school without too many issues. We are focusing on teacher training on how to use the technology which seems to be making a difference.

  7. Have a specialist who’s job it is to trouble shoot the computers and make sure they are all running smoothly.  Have students see this specialist outside of class time if possible.

    I agree with having a specialist around, but wonder, if a student’s paper wasn’t working, would we let them suffer until the end of the day to get it working again? If it’s a critical tool for learning, it needs to be working.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong supporter of technology in the classroom.  I think there are some very powerful, very useful ways it can be used.  However I don’t think it is being used effectively at our school, and I often wish I had the power to can the whole program and start over again, implementing some of my suggestions above. Update: At my current school, I think we are working on improving our use of technology, and for quite a lot of people, it is being used effectively. Obviously, there is always room for improvement.

Update: I wrote this post nearly 4 years ago, when I worked in a very different school, and my own pedagogical approach was different. I think that battery life of computers has improved a lot since I wrote this, mitigating some of the issues, and that I see these more as learning experiences for students and teachers. With more applications being web based (and more applications supporting a wide variety of users), standardization of device and browser is a lot less important as well. Further, students will have these same issues after they leave school, so it is somewhat better for them to have them in school, where they can get some support for later in life.