Friday, May 1, 2009

Strategies for Teaching in a 1:1 Computer to Student Classroom

A number of our fifth grade classrooms that have begun using laptops with their students. Each student has their own Asus EeePc Netbook computer. These student computers are all running the Linux version (Asus's custom Xandros installation). The reasoning for running Linux on the student computers was three fold: cost, support, and ease of use.

With the Linux version of the Asus EeePC, each computer came with a complete suite of software tools. In addition, we are able to easily add any OpenSource application(Google Earth, Scratch, Pencil, etc.) that we choose. Software is added via shell scripts that run off one of our main servers. Each student laptop connects to the server on start up, and checks the shell script for updates. If updates are present, they download and install behind the scenes automatically. In addition to easily updating student computers, the Asus EeePC comes with a protected harddrive partition that allows the student laptops to be easily re-imaged to their original deployed state. These two support features come in very handy when you are a teacher and have a class of 32 students with their own laptops. The updating of student laptops happens behind the scenes and software problems can be remedied on start-up by the teacher with a keystroke. Finally, Asus has customized the Xandros Linux to run very well on their 901a netbooks . The desktop is a series of tabbed windows, and applications are large icons within the individual windows. Applications are launched with a simple click of the mouse.

So, I know what you're probably thinking, that's all great, but how are teachers teaching with a room full of students on laptops? Aside from them all working independently on research projects, collecting information, and synthesizing all that collected data into a new product (which is usually not difficult for the teacher that is familiar with using technology in the classroom); is it possible to transition teachers into using laptops with their students in a more traditional whole group, teacher led style? Good question, and I concur, we have to be realistic in classrooms that are just beginning to implement 1:1 computing. A teacher who has never experienced 1:1 computing and is dropped into that type of environment is going to be a little intimidated. The biggest fear of teachers going down this road is their fear of lack of control. They are very used to controlling the learning environment and sequence of instruction. I am happy to report that their most definitely is a way.

One tool that we have added to our students laptops and teachers Windows based laptops is the OpenSource application iTalc ( . iTac is an administrative tool for the teacher. It allows the teacher to view every student netbook on their own laptop display. These can be thumbnail images all at once, or individual images of individual student displays. In addition, the teacher can lock and unlock student computers , very handy when you are doing teacher led instruction. Teachers can also remotely control any student computer. This feature comes in handy when the teacher wishes to share a student's work on the student's laptop with the whole class. The teacher's display becomes what the student is seeing and is then projected out through the LCD projector connected to the teacher's laptop. We have noticed a few things that do not work. However, they are not essential features. For instance, the software apparently will allow a teacher to boot or shut down a student computer; however our Asus EeePcs are lacking a network feature that would allow this to happen. This is not a big deal.

iTalc provides teachers with a way of controlling their learning environment. The most difficult part of teaching in a 1:1 environment, once you have the control, is designing instruction that is both familiar to the teacher, but at the same time utilizes the strength of the computer and power of the resources available on the network. It 's almost as if you need a software tool that acts like anaperture on a camera. You need it open real wide, to collect as much data that it can at times, but you need to be able to clamp that aperture down and restrict what is possible at other times. Some of this can be done through strategically using theiTalc administrative software . A teacher can limit and share what students can do or see on the laptop during instruction. This is just an extension of the old "hide and reveal" strategy on the overhead projector. However, when you do the reveal part now, there are a ton more capabilities than doing the reveal part on an overhead projector!

Keeping things simple is imperative when working with teachers not familiar with technology in the classroom. You don't want to make a teacher use a dozen different applications to teach one lesson. Ideally, you want to use an application that is familiar in operations to traditional instructional tools, but at the same time combines the collaborative and resource rich components of new instructional tools. This also would provide opportunities for teachers to teach computer/information literacy skills as well as the content standards. So, who has a tool like this? Well without too much difficulty, I have discovered one such tool that I feel meets those requirements. It is called Nota and is available at The nice thing about this application is it web based and free, no installation necessary, and no licensing fee. What I have found with most of these "Web 2.0" resources is that they are not perfect, and by their very nature of being designed for a large audience require some creative thinking on the part of the teacher. For example, Nota requires that it's users have an email account. You can't get a Nota account without an email address because like many web applications, the process requires that you are able to receive an email message to authenticate your account. We do not provide our students with email accounts. A creative solution around this problem would be to create one account and share the account amongst all your students. Nota allows multiple users to log in with the same account at the same time. This has it's apparent drawbacks, but it is one solution if students do not posses email accounts.

Nota is like a digital notebook that combines the features of a traditional notebook, being able to write down notes and information, with that of some common digital tools. For example, you may embed a discussion board directly into any of your notebook pages. Or, you can embed Creative Commons licensed photographs offFlickr that you are able to search for directly from the Nota interface. Other resources that are directly accessible through Nota include: YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Maps, Picassa, and more all search-able from the Nota interface. In addition to the resources that are accessible in Nota , you also have the feature of a shared digital white board. So instead of one or two students at a time at the front of the room on a"smartboard," they can all be contributing to the content of the Nota page simultaneously from their desk.

Combining a classroom full of students with computers, a teacher management tool such as iTalc, and a digital tool such as Nota and teachers can create engaging instruction that allows them to control the delivery of instruction and enable them to strategically address computer/information skills and content standards at the same time.

Asus Computer - EeePc -
Nota -
iTalc -
Sylvan Union School District -


Tom McClain said...

Thank you for your post. A link from the NECC '09 website lead me here.
I have been curious about Linux Netbooks in the classroom and your post gives me hope/incentive to dig a little more.
Thanks again and best wishes for continued success.

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