12 key lessons schools can learn from Cary Academy

November 29, 2011

Using computer technology in education is nothing new, but placing PCs on every desktop or assigning every student a laptop hasn’t been financially feasible for most secondary schools.

Not surprisingly, in many educators’ eyes, the evolution of the tablet holds the promise of finally making it financially viable to have a dedicated device for each student—what educators like to call “one-to-one” computing.

Sure, students not having to lug around textbooks is great. And yes, the time saved by eliminating trips to the computer lab and never having to pass out and collect laptops would be immense. But what about teachers using screencasts to monitor how students are doing their homework? And the long-term value of having a state of the art computer at all times?

The upside is clear, but there are also pitfalls to avoid, and best practices to adopt if a school is going to make its tablet program work. Nestled next to Research Triangle Park, Cary Academy is a prep school in the fast-growing, affluent town of Cary, North Carolina. The school has been assigning tablet PCs to each of its students since 2006.

As part of the school’s mission, Cary Academy has an outreach program that is dedicated to helping other secondary schools launch or consider one-to-one tablet programs. TabTimes spoke to the school’s administrators to identify 12 best practices and philosophies in using tablets to enhance the learning experience.

1. Carefully analyze the total cost before launching a tablet program.
It’s important to understand that the tablets must be maintained, and will have to be replaced within at least four years. Program sustainability is critical. “It’s an expensive program to run,” said Dr. Joselyn Todd, who directs the Cary Academy instructional technology outreach program. “Schools may have the initial investment but don’t always have funds to continue long-term.”

2. Each school has unique needs and infrastructure that require different solutions. What works for one school may not work for another.

3. Teachers and students should use the same hardware to ensure compatibility and to lower costs.
“That greatly simplifies support,” said Cary Academy’s director of information services, Dmitry Manakhov. “It takes fewer resources.” With this in mind, the school uses Lenovo X200 tablet PCs running Windows 7. While minor configuration variations exist from year to year around the CPUs, memory, and other specifications, this is fine. The key is that the same fundamental architecture should be running on the same operating system

4. Schools should choose tablets that work well with a stylus on programs such as OneNote.
According to Marybeth Short, a sixth-grade language teacher at Cary Academy, being able to handwrite notes, work math problems by hand, and draw is more conducive to learning in many cases than a keyboard. The iPad’s lack of a built-in stylus tool is one reason Cary Academy thinks the iPad has yet to achieve its full educational potential. "Students learn at the highest level by creating something," Todd said. "The iPad is great as a consumption device, but it is not yet competitive compared to a laptop or a convertible tablet in terms of a creativity device–right now. But the iPad is a tremendous product, and I feel certain that its destiny in one-to-one computing is very bright, as it and the applications that run on it will continue to evolve."

5. Most teachers need professional-development programs to learn how to best use tablets in their teaching.
Teachers should begin learning to teach with tablets at least six months before they are rolled out to students. “On the front end, when schools first go into one-to-one learning programs, things slow down because they’re on a learning curve,” Todd said. "But by the second year, things start to click.”

6. Teachers must buy into the program for it to work.
At Cary Academy, teachers don’t have to be tech gurus to be hired, but they must be excited about how technology can improve education, Todd said.

7. Teachers in each academic discipline should form their own groups to determine how to best use tablets for their particular subjects.

8. Buy durable products that can withstand constant and sometimes careless use.
“You need to invest in the better machines in advance,” Manakhov said. “Just because they run at the same speed doesn’t mean they’re equal.” Cary Academy uses business-class Lenova Thinkpad X220 Tablets, but many schools don’t have the initial investment to reap the long-term cost-effectiveness of more-durable hardware. “It all comes down to money—what schools can afford,” Todd said.

9. Give students a sense of ownership of the tablets.
Let kids take them home and use them for personal use as well as homework. Students should be taught responsible use of the Internet, but there’s nothing wrong with them using their tablets to visit Facebook or You Tube.

10. Use as few filters on Internet sites as possible.
Of course, certain sites must be blocked, but filters can be so stringent that they block access to useful information.

11. Tablets don’t have to be distractions for students.
Keeping students from checking out the latest viral video during class is not that different than keeping them from doodling on a paper notebook. “It doesn’t require any more classroom management than in a traditional classroom,” Short said.

12. Tablets are just a tool, and can’t replace essential teaching skills.
Never lose sight of the goal, which is to enhance learning. Schools using tablets should continually seek out and adjust to feedback from students and teachers about how tablets are specifically helping them teach and learn.

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