Chaos or Calm – Laptops in the Classroom


The issue of classroom management is one that consumes many a teacher’s time and effort. Some prefer an environment that is yoga studio tranquil, while others prefer the action and activity of a rodeo. Both can work as long as the outcome, learning, is achieved. A quick search on Google will bring you to a number of sites that focus on classroom management. The NEA (National Education Association) has a section on classroom management with these top two articles: Avoiding Power Struggles with Students – The do and don’ts of dealing with classroom confrontation and, under discipline, Are you Being Fair? Tips for avoiding teachers pets and favouritism in the classroom. Articles, books (ex. Reluctant Disciplinarian), and videos (ex. Helping Teachers Grow) on the subject can be found almost anywhere a teacher looks. The point is, classroom management is an issue that must be dealt with by all educators in order for successful learning to take place. cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Lost in Japan, by Miguel Michán

Amplfying this concern, for many, is the introduction of the laptop as a required tool for students in their educational pursuits. From the get-go there is often great resistence to their adoption by not just teachers, but parents, administrators and, sometimes even students. One of the key reasons for this resistence is that the laptop is too much of a distraction for most students to manage, all the while trying to learn. Examples of the nervousness felt by many teachers is demonstrated in a SlideShare by Clint Hamada at the United Nations International School in Hanoi.

A quick listen to the audio accompanying the SlideShare and one can witness that Clint is really trying to help the staff at his school realize that the issue is behavioural, not technological. As soon as it is accepted as such, then the real issues of classroom managment can be tackled.

At our school, I have the pleasure, as the Digital Learning Coach, of seeing dozens of different teachers in action. Each teacher has their own approach to classroom management and all seem to work. Strategies for getting class attention, keeping students on task, randomly choosing people to answer questions, grouping students, sharing work, are used to manage and maximize the flow of learning.

Still there was resistence that compelled us to adapt our laptop rollout plans. Not all of these “speed bumps” should be considered negative. Most were in the best interest of students, or were at least sold as such. Two years ago, it was determined that the laptops would be given to those in years 11, 12, and 13. I don’t want to speculate on the reasoning for limiting to the higher grades, but I do know that when I arrived last year the roll-out of the one-to-one program was deliberately gradual so that we could learn from the mistakes made along the way. Year 10s got their machines in August, Year 9s in September, Year 8 was delayed until February and the Year 7s until March. The postponement was beneficial as we did learn a great deal about managing the change. Initially there were classroom management issues, but people quickly adapted. A number of very good things came out of the shared use of technology, namely a plan for consistency to help students organize themselves licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by Instant Vantage

When we did roll out the laptops for each year level, we collapsed the schedule for one day and hosted a Digital Tech Conference (DTC). Students were given their laptops at the end of the day prior to the DTC so that they could go home and ‘play’. This worked brilliantly as the students came to school both excited and comfortable with their new machines. On the DTC day, the students rotated between 6 seminars on organization and note taking (OneNote), digital citizenship/cyberbullying (counsellor), communication (Outlook, Veracross), ethical use (principal), responsibility (backing up with DropBox), and portfolio building (blogs). Although an intense day, it gave all students a sound framework and an understanding of the school’s expectations of use.

Since our rollouts last year, I have seen numerous strategies for dealing with laptop distractions, the most common of which is difficulty in getting students to stop their work on the machines when asked. Most simply say “45 degrees” (the angle of the screen) when they require student attention. Others ask students to turn their laptops around. Students quickly understand that there is a purpose to these requests and few resist. Another dynamic that has been interesting is the use of Dyknow vs. teacher management of the laptops. DyKnow is an ‘on-line learning environment’ which is really just a friendly way of saying that the machines are connected to each other via a network. Being connected allows for some wonderful options like:

  • a teacher opening a URL on all student machines
  • students handing in work that is given a student ID and stored in a new folder
  • taking quick class polls
  • sharing student screens on the projector
  • getting attention by a screen freeze
  • distributing files directly to all linked machines

Of course there are other features that some teachers like as well. Namely, the ability to see what students are doing by viewing their screens. It is this ‘Big Brother’ feature as some have called it, that can be off-putting for teachers and students alike. After the initial excitement of its launch last spring, everyone seems to have become used to the benefits and possible pitfalls of using DyKnow. (Some teachers found it devastating to find even “good” students off task for large portions of their class). Eventually, it all became a matter of trust and communication. Teachers were instructed to tell students they were using DyKnow such that the use of the tool was more transparent and less sneaky.

Ultimately, any classroom management system involves building trust through healthy communication. As long as teachers have expectations and have thought about how they plan to maintain and manage those expectations, most students will find reason in the actions taken. Where teachers tend to have difficulty is when there is an unknown that disrupts their systems of management. This is why it is key that teachers thoroughly think about how they want to manage the use of laptops in their classroom. Is the expectation that the laptop be up and ready to go at the beginning of every lesson (unless otherwise instructed) or visa versa? Is there a visual cue or sign that indicates laptops are or are not to be used? Has the teacher thought about whether the use of digital technology helps or hinders the learning in the particular class they are teaching? If a teacher does not feel confident when answering these questions, then the lessons are likely to suffer as a consequence. In my experience, as the teachers got more comfortable with the digital technology, they become more confident in their management of its use. cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by TerryJohnston

Looking forward, we are now in the process of testing the use of iPads in classrooms throughout the school. There is a blog documenting this trial at NIST and another recent post by Darren Coxon entitled Getting ready for iPad deployment: ten things I’d wish I’d known about last year. Although a great deal of what is discussed in Coxon’s post is technical, it is these technical setbacks that are often overlooked and cause the failure of full integration of new digital technology. We need more posts like these to help others learn from our mistakes.

The next step that I believe is inevitably upon us is the movement towards bringing your own technology. On so many levels this makes sense: economics, choice, merging of platforms, etc… . But with this shift comes challenges for teachers too. How can a program be consistently delivered? What applications will be used or required? Who is going to manage the shared resources, if there are any, owned by the school? Will schools become known as ‘The Tap’ where everyone goes to drink from the most reliable, high speed connection? Regardless of what this, and other changes bring, in the end it should be good pedagogy that prevails.

What are your thoughts about laptops, or any digital technology for that matter, in the classroom? Does it undermine or enhance the learning in the classroom? A bit of both?

Avatar of Ivan Beeckmans

About Ivan Beeckmans

Currently a Digital Learning Coach at the NIST International School (formerly the New International School of Thailand) in Bangkok, Thailand
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