Sunday, October 10, 2010

Field of Dreams

As I write this post I am sitting in the Des Moines airport waiting for my flight back to the East Coast.  I was fortunate to spend the last few days here in Iowa as a guest of Scott McLeod who founded and runs the C.A.S.T.L.E. program at Iowa State University.  The purpose of my trip here was to learn about the deployment, facilitation, and observable impact of 1:1 laptop programs in various Iowa school districts.  I have little experience in this area as I only know of a handful of districts in New Jersey that have these programs. 

On Wednesday when I arrived my head was filled with unclear expectations as to what my takeaways would be upon my return east.   Although I could envision some benefits of a 1:1 program in my school, I had no plans to pursue implementing one.  Little did I know that I would be leaving with a wealth of information that could have the potential to radically transform the learning culture at New Milford High School.  I also was unprepared for the amount of corn I would see virtually every minute of my journey through a state that really gets it from an educational standpoint. 

First a little history on 1:1 laptop programs in Iowa.  Last year approximately 17 Districts had deployed these programs in their schools.  That number has now grown to 51 this year (see this map).  Obviously the state of Iowa noticed something beneficial result from these programs as the number of 1:1 laptop schools tripled.   Here are my observations and thoughts after touring three schools (K-12, 7-12, K-6) located throughout central Iowa:
  • We need to prepare our students to be doers and creative thinkers who can compete with their peers globally for jobs that have yet to evolve.  Many schools across the country are not doing this and as a result our students are at a disadvantage.
  • A common message of change must be embraced by all stakeholders, especially Boards of Education and Central Office Administration, for 1:1 programs to be rolled out in schools.  Additionally, the community needs to speak up and ask schools to do things differently if Districts would rather not break from the status quo.  This last point was the driving force in one District we visited.
  • Students in schools with 1:1 programs don’t ask what they have to do to get the right answer as do those in other schools structured to teach to the test.  Instead, they are asking thought-provoking questions, challenging assumptions, making interdisciplinary connections, applying acquired knowledge, and are immersing themselves in authentic learning experiences.  These students are permitted to follow their passion, which results in the active pursuit of self-directed learning opportunities.
  • Teachers can easily and effectively differentiate content, projects, and assessments for students.  I observed a great example of this in a 6th grade class.  As students finished work on their vertebrate Keynote projects, they immediately began working on math or language arts content that was found on their teacher’s website. 
  • I observed students performing various tasks on the laptops that many teachers and administrators do not know how to do such as hyperlinking content, creating custom music using Garage Band for their presentations, constructing Wordles, using Paintbrush, and adding customized slide transitions.  The latter two, I don’t even know how to do on Keynote.  The significance of this is that students are then empowered to not only collaborate with each other, but to also teach the teacher.  This can only occur in learning environments where control is relinquished, as was the case in many classrooms we visited.
  • Many teachers seamlessly integrated technology and computer skills into their lessons through modeling and reinforcement.  In my opinion, this served to significantly enhance the curriculum as well as to refine and introduce advanced technology skills.
  • When asked whether or not parents embraced and accepted these programs, the uniform message was quite surprising.  Parents were initially fearful of the program (i.e. cost to fix or replace), but those fears soon subsided.  Each school then explained how the laptops were bringing families together outside of school.   Engagement in many homes increased as families began to use the laptops together.  I even heard about how some parents were annoyed that they couldn’t get their students to bed at a reasonable hour because they were constantly up late solving math problems on their laptops (this is a positive in my book).  Other positives associated with the 1:1 programs include increases in student engagement and attendance, as well as decreases in tardiness and discipline referrals.   You could see that the students thoroughly enjoyed coming to school and were not bored.  I found it particularly fascinating that in one elementary school they found that the students’ enhanced presentation skills acquired from class gave them the confidence to speak in front of large adult groups.  These same students Skype back into their classes when on vacation, sharing, with their peers, pictures and the history of the location they are visiting.
  • Recommendations: More professional development would go a long way in assisting the staff to effectively integrate the laptops in each school. Check out this post on Dangerously Irrelevant.

Each 1:1 school in Iowa represents a “Field of Dreams” to each and every student enrolled there.  The students are afforded the opportunity to follow their passion, be creative, collaborate, and become active participants in the learning process.  What struck me the most were the high levels of student engagement in classrooms where the tool was combined with a sound pedagogical foundation.  In all cases, students were being prepared for the future.  I leave Iowa motivated to provide my students with their own field of dreams.  Thank you Scott McLeod!


  1. If you build it they will come! Excellent post and great title for this piece. Iowans have definitely taken the lead in 1:1 Schools. I feel it is definitely a great way for students to learn. Employing technology to expand their world and taking them out of their classrooms will change the traditional classroom.

    Your piece is an excellent addition to my 1:1 Schools page:

  2. Absolutely correct Jerry.. the Iowans are leading the way not just for America but also the world. I am amazed at the output of new and exciting ways of developing learning that I pick up on a regular basis from Van Meter. It is people like John Carver, Deron Durflinger and the amazing Shannon Miller who should be lauded as national heroes in the U.S. educational world.
    Thank you a great post Eric.

  3. very cool. thanks for sharing your experience Eric.

    would love to hear more specifics on how this is happening - you wrote:
    These students are permitted to follow their passion, which results in the active pursuit of self-directed learning opportunities.

    can you share anymore here?
    do you have any links to videos of kids doing/sharing what they do? would you recommend talking to Scott? or someone else from there?

    again - looking for specifics of kids engaging in self-directed activities per passion.

    so glad you got to go... can't wait to see/hear what you do with it.

  4. I too was a 1:1 skeptic until I visited the Pascack Valley high schools in New Jersey last spring. The quality of the students' work and the degree to which they worked independently of teacher direction was astounding. It's hard for me to put into words, so I truly appreciate your post here!

  5. Thank you for this post. We (teachers, admins, staff members) need to share experiences online. The more candid, the better because the successes as well as the failures add to the dialogue.

    Educators tend to wait until the full implentation cycle is complete before venturing into "new" territory. I think this reluctance to take risks is the biggest obstacle to effective ed reform. The learning curve is so much steeper than the dip resulting from failure.

    I will be sharing this post with my colleagues and with parents. It also gives me encouragement to keep pushing beyond the "safe" zone.

  6. Monika,

    Reach out to John Carver and Deron Derflinger as they can definitely answer your questions!

  7. Thanks for the post, Eric. I have passed some of your links on to our administrators. Sharing of experiences is so important.

  8. Eric,

    Enjoyed your post and wish I could have connected with you while in Iowa. Your observations serve as motivation to continue to push the envelope in Iowa. I think it is worth pointing out that you never would have made these connections to McLeod or other Iowa schools without your PLN via Twitter. I know I can say this because I DM'd you and you confirmed this small "HUGE" fact.

    Good luck in your endeavor to move your school to a 1:1 environment.

    Jeff Dicks, Superintendent #newellfonda

  9. You mentioned how to get the parents on board. Were all teachers on board, too? We're they given time to restructure their lessons?

  10. Enjoyed your post and you can add another school to your map that went to 1:1 in grades 6-12 at Valley Community School District, Elgin, Iowa (in Fayette County) up in NE Iowa.
    We just had two, back-to-back all day PD with our K-12 teachers from Apple. What a GREAT hands on experience and participatory learning! Wow!
    Cathy Molumby, Valley CSD Superintendent

  11. I had a similar experience at Van Meter, Iowa!

  12. Eric,
    As a 1:1 educator in Iowa, I applaud you for taking the time to share the vision with us. We are excited and empowered by the direction of 1:1 learning in Iowa. As you have seen, it is more that just the computer. It is a cultural change in education. I'm proud to be a member of such an elite group of educators.

    Cari Teske
    BCLUW Teacher Librarian