Someone tweeted today: “when is the last time you were in a K-12 classroom that was not your own?”–with the clear implication that this happens far too rarely in our work as educators.  I agree; I don’t think I visited another school’s classroom in action in the entire decade I was a teacher, and only rarely visited another classroom in my own school.

This morning I visited Empire High School in Vail, AZ; it has received some acclaim for the quality of their 1-1 laptop implementation, even in the New York Times. Our visit this morning was lovely in the warm way we were welcomed and toured; it was unfortunate that a monsoon storm last night had crashed their system, and, we were told, they had the worst internet outage in the past five years this same morning we were visiting!

So unfortunately, our classroom visits were a bit compromised.  Classes we saw were engaged, but not online; one senior English class had underway a remarkably participatory conversation about the meaning of existentialism in Camus’ Stranger.   A Spanish class was devoted to showing students techniques for creating virtual flash-cards; a history class watched a video about the Colosseum; a Math class used a document camera to project a grid and equation graphing.

We only spent a few minutes with Jeremy Gypton, but by all accounts he is an exemplary technologically astute Social Studies teacher.  His class blog contains pages for each of his courses; his Economics page has, for instance, a Prezi presentation which asks students to connect the economic theories with real-world examples.   Empire’s principal discussed with enthusiasm the way his teachers were using Prezi, and his belief that prezi instill in students a different, more wholistic and synthesizing, way of thinking and conceptualizing than does powerpoint.

Empire has been at the laptop game six years, since it opened, and they had good suggestions and references for us.  The English and History teachers value greatly and use widely the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), of which I had not heard.  Also suggested was, not only for plagiarism detection but also for teacher commentary on essays submitted and reviewed electronically; this feature is now being branded as turnitin2.

Empire’s history teachers, we were told, could not survive without the use of ABC-CLIO; this is from their website, explaining its features:

This integration of core, essential reference content, innovative teaching resources, and 21st century challenges for critical thinking reflects the very best scholarship and content quality, the most student-focused approach to inquiry-based learning, and state-of-the-art information technology

While there, we had rich and wide ranging discussions of 1:1 issues.  First off was the topic of universality of implementation.  When Empire first opened, teachers practiced nearly 100% laptop instruction: laptops open all the time.   Administrators directed teachers it should be this way; teachers themselves felt this was their obligation.  In time, though, they realized it was not an absolute; they could be a very effective, more effective, laptop school by putting the laptops away some times.   The Empire administrators referred to another school where the rule is 60% time laptop usage, and that they have heard some teachers there really resent it.   I agree; laptops should always be available, but not always used, and it is fine to vary and differentiate usage.

Empire has only one smart-board (IWB), and that came only this year; Principal Matt Donaldson and I discussed this choice on their part, to invest first and foremost in putting technology in students’ hands, not teachers’, and agreed with the pedagogical philosophy.   It prompted us to discuss further, that technology has to serve the aim of strengthening students’ ability to learn and take responsibility for their learning.

We also discussed developing on-line coursework for credit in our 1:1 laptop schools; Empire’s principal whole-heartedly agreed that this is a critical next step for technologically integrated high school programs, but conveyed his concern, based on some trials that they had done in summer school, that for some students, the lack of face-to-face, interpersonal teacher-student relationships will diminish sharply student accountability and effort, such that school-work will just not get done.   We agreed that we must seek blended solutions, and not lose the value that relationships provide in motivating student effort.

Empire does a lot of filtering and site blocking; not just inappropriate sites and distracting sites, but even all personal email and, for most, school e-mail.    I asked about the capacity of a student who might be sick at home, or on a trip, to conference into classes they were missing (as we have begun to have our students do at St. Gregory), and I was told there is no tools available for such conferencing, they were all blocked or dismantled.    I respect that this is an 800 student school and it is important for them to be efficient and prudent in their use of these tools, but it still saddened me a bit that there is so much that is disabled.   I may be too idealistic, but students need to learn to manage distractions at some point in their life to be successful, and high school might be a good time for them to do so.

During a math class visit, the Empire principal talked about difficult to learn math concepts, and how they were trying to identify and capture concise lessons which would best deliver difficult concepts.   This sparked my enthusiasm for khanacademy and its skillful success at exactly this, which I shared with Matt; the conversation then migrated to our shared enthusiasm for the idea that as more and more high quality lectures and content/skill delivery lessons become available on-line (and free!), in-class school-time should evolve to becoming more a time to practice and apply learning, with teacher support.

This same afternoon, we were visited by television reporters from Tucson Channel 11, here to do a story on our new 1:1 laptop program.   I told the reporter that schools like Empire and St. Gregory are leading the way into a future that is now far off, when all schools will be 1:1 schools, be it  laptops, netbooks, smartphones, or some other digital online tool.   All students will be better networked, better organized, better connected to the wide world of the web and of knowledge generally.   With these tools, they be empowered, engaged, and motivated to take on complicated problems and solve them collaboratively, and to create their own posted publications and productions to demonstrate their learning and contribute themselves to the world’s collection of knowledge, wisdom, and artistic expression.