Netbooks in the Classroom
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
What does a 21st century classroom look like? This year, as a part of a federal building grant, our school district purchased 11 wireless portable computer carts, each of which houses 27 netbooks. Over the past month, I have been piloting a wireless portable computer cart in my classroom. There have been many hurdles along the way; however, empowering each student by giving them a computer has been enlightening and exhilarating. The rewards are well worth all the time and effort I have put into piloting them.
What Is a Netbook?
Netbooks are like laptops, except they are smaller, ranging from seven to 11.6 inches, and they have fewer computing capabilities. We have the Hewlett Packard 11.6-inch wireless netbooks, which so far have handled the activities planned in my classroom. I wouldn’t try to use one for major video projects or operating an interactive whiteboard, however. In spite of this, they are impressive.
Our netbooks, operating on Windows XP, have Microsoft Office 2007 installed. And, as their name suggests, they are networked, so we have Internet and wireless printing capabilities. Although the screens are small, we can view documents at page width without any visibility issues. The keyboard is smaller than on a normal laptop; nevertheless, the students, especially those who are capable of texting on tiny cell phone pads, manage the smaller keyboard without any difficulties. I have used one on a few occasions. It took some adjustment because I am accustomed to my own computer, but I adapted with very little effort. Because they are a fraction of the price of a laptop, more computers can be put into more of our students’ hands.
Lowville Academy Central School is a PreK–12 campus. The wireless netbook carts serve grades 6–12, which is approximately 800 students. Because the carts travel to different wings of the school building, numbering the carts and netbooks became a necessity. The carts are labeled 1–11, and shelves are numbered 1–27. Likewise, the netbooks are numbered 1–27. If there is an issue with a netbook, an online tech help request is filled out identifying the netbook. (So if the request lists netbook 001-17, this means that it's cart 1, netbook 17.) Numbering the shelves makes it easier to locate a malfunctioning netbook if the cart gets relocated to a different classroom. This system also makes it quick and easy to return the netbooks to the cart and take inventory at the end of class.
Managing Netbooks in the Classroom
Before my students received a netbook, I went over a few basic rules:
- No food or drinks are allowed around the netbooks.
- When I am teaching, the monitors are lowered within two inches of being closed.
- Netbook privileges are suspended until further notice if a student misuses or abuses a netbook.
- Students must use two hands to carry the netbooks. Do not carry the netbooks by the screen.
- Each student is responsible for shutting down his or her netbook and putting it away.
- Notebooks must sit flat on the cleared-off desk.
Christy Williams, a colleague from General Brown School District, gave me permission to share her district's wireless mini laptop protocol. Their carts are lower and wider, so she posts the usage policy to the top of each cart to ensure that teachers and students can easily refer to it when the netbooks are in their classroom.
To ensure that students act responsibly with the netbooks, I assigned a numbered computer to each student. For example, student #1 was assigned netbook #1. A sense of ownership has been a key component in establishing student accountability and ensuring responsible behavior. So far, I have not encountered any misuse or abuse — even when a substitute teacher was in the classroom.
Christy, also shared her mini laptop sign-out sheet, which works well in her district. Students are not assigned a number. Instead they sign out a laptop on this form, which tracks netbook usage. These forms are kept in a binder, which travels with the cart, too.
Jumping Over the Hurdles
The first day we used the netbooks, I questioned my sanity. It took us ten minutes to hand out the netbooks. It took another ten minutes to return them to the cart to recharge. I can’t afford to lose 20 minutes of instructional time each time we used them. My first priority is teaching my content area subject. After considering my schedule and the need to recharge the netbooks, I came up with a plan for recharging them halfway through the day. I teach five sections of English during 40-minute periods: 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8. So we hand out the netbooks 1st period, and put them back for recharging at the end of 3rd period. We pass them back out in 5th period, and put them away again after 8th period. When they are not in the cart charging, they lay flat on the desks. When students enter the room, they find their netbook on a desk and sit down. Since the netbooks are new, we can follow these procedures for now. As the batteries become weaker, we will have to modify the procedure.
Losing instructional time was not the only hurdle. I had students left and right requesting tech assistance as we learned how to save files and upload our files to a learning management system that allows my student to access the files from school and home. (I'll share more about this in a future post.) But with the help of a few poker chips, we now function effectively. If the students have a request, they slide a chip to the upper right-hand corner of the desk and continue working. They put up a green chip if they need tech help, and a red chip if they need writing help. They allows me to manage push-in teacher support as well as student support. One teacher may prefer to work with technology, the other with writing, or vice versa. I have a few students in each classroom who love technology. These students love to help their peers with accessing, saving, and uploading files. This frees me up to conference with students.
Reaping the Rewards
Today, I looked around the room. After about four weeks of training and tweaking the system, my classroom runs like a WWII assembly line. As soon as the students receive their netbook, they get logged in and then lower the monitors within an inch of being closed. As the netbooks boot up, I teach a Writer's Workshop mini-lesson. If I need to make an announcement or wrap up the class, I give them 30 seconds to come to attention. A couple of times I noticed sneaky fingers at work. When this happened, I’d have all students put their hands on their heads to ensure they are listening. Understandably, many educators worry that students will be engaging in off-task activities. My students are too focused trying to get work done to venture into off-task behavior.
I have had critics ask me if I lose focus on my content while integrating so much technology into my classroom. There is a bit of a trade-off in taking the time to train students; however, I also have to consider that if the New York State Education Department follows through as planned, this class of students will be the first to take their English tests on computers. More importantly, I have to consider the skills they need to be productive citizens, not in the year 2010, but in the year 2017 — the year they graduate.
As more and more school districts face tighter budgets, netbooks are becoming a solution to the problem of how to replace outdated technology. In an article, "Best in Tech 2009: Netbooks," published in Scholastic Administrator, Ken Royal interviews expert technology reviewers to guide school districts in balancing the costs and functionality of netbooks. The guide helps educators select the most efficient netbook for varying instructional goals.
How do you manage computers in your classroom? Share you experience below.