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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Macbook Airs teach students to work like adults

HMS students were all given an Apple Macbook Air laptop at the start of the school year/Wikipedia
Watching demonstration videos, being able to communicate quickly with every teacher and student in the school, and a lighter backpack are just a few of the benefits Highlands Middle School students are seeing from having their own Macbook computers.
Every student in Highlands Middle School was given a Macbook Air at the beginning of the school year. They use the computers in every class and are even able to take them home to do homework. The goal is to have students work like adults work in everyday life but this transition hasn't been without challenges.

"The Digital Conversion is going much better than I expected," said Mark Goetz, principal of Highlands Middle School. "We still have a long way to go to make things exactly like we want them, but students are engaged and teachers are showing great creativity in preparing lessons."

In addition to primarily using computers in the classroom, the school is now using a new grading platform called Schoology. Although there are actual textbooks in the classroom to refer to, the books are online.

A lot had to be done to prepare for he conversion. "Our timeline was tight but you have to start somewhere," said Goetz. "We have had network upgrades and Wi-Fi access points installed to help with the speed of connections. The Learning Management System called Schoology was not in place when the vendor said it would be and that made communicating grades and assignments with parents not to our standard but that has been corrected."

He added that getting 775 machines on the network with new applications for each subject, Schoology working and making sure the filtering system provided protection for the students was very difficult.  
"The conversion at Highlands High School next year will really benefit from what has been learned this year," Goetz said.

"This year has actually been very difficult and one of my most stressful years that I can recall," said Tracy Houston, who has been teaching for 17 years. "Trying to redevelop lessons that take advantage of the new technologies takes a lot of time and is done primarily on your own, which takes endless hours.  There have been days that I have worked all day and then all evening at home as well, and I know many teachers are doing the same. Learning to use these new resources and technologies in the best way so that students benefit the most from them has taken hours upon hours and that creates a lot of stress."

Sally Brewer, who has been teaching for 23 years, said there has been a lot of technical issues but there is an IT team on staff ready to deal with those and she expects things will get better with time.

Houston said there are benefits. "In some ways, grading is easier in that some assignments can be created on Schoology, graded and entered into the grade book automatically. It's nice to be able to have all the kids in the class access information without having to struggle with trying to book computer lab time. It has also made it much easier to get quick formative assessment data on the kids so you can tell if you have to revisit a topic or if the kids understand."

Goetz said the best part of the conversion is seeing students really getting engaged in learning and teachers transforming the ways they teach to allow this engagement. "These kids learn differently than students did even 10 years ago. The Digital Conversion at HMS has been much more than a substitute for textbooks, but it is providing students ways to learn in a manner that was not possible before the conversion."

"The Mac is just a tool in the learning cycle, the goal is to get students learning in ways where we are doing more than substituting for a book but allowing for the creation of new tasks, new ideas and new creativity that was not possible before," Goetz added.

Although Houston and Brewer have dealt with several challenges, they both see how this can change the classroom for the better.

"I can see the possibilities and how awesome this type of instruction/classroom environment can be," Brewer said. "It just takes time and it’s important that teachers are patient with themselves knowing that it is okay to only implement one new idea at a time."

Houston is excited about the possibilities. "I really like that the Macs have given me a way to better differentiate instruction. All the resources are available for kids to use at their own pace, so those that need more time can take it, and those that are ready to move on can do so."

Houston, Goetz and Brewer all agree that the majority of the students enjoy using the Macs. "The kids really like the Mac Books overall," Brewer said. "I did a poll with team 6-2 (about half of the sixth grade). 77% prefer learning with Mac Books; 23% prefer a traditional classroom. The thing they like most is not having to lug around a bunch of textbooks. They also like typing much of their classwork and homework instead of handwriting everything. Grant it, kids still hand write things. That’s a real life skill. We aren’t paperless."

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