U Prep’s New Tablet + Laptop Programs

When I arrived at U Prep this past August, the school had just announced the decision to launch 1:1 student device programs in the fall of 2013. A decade ago, U Prep decided not to have a laptop program, so this represented a shift of direction from the school’s past position. Now, given that both student laptop use at home and school had become commonplace, U Prep decided to turn the corner and make student technology use ubiquitous. Students would have access to these research, communication, and production tools all of the time, which both students and teachers would use to support their learning.

The first step was to open the school’s network to student-owned devices. In a BYOD spirit, a wireless VLAN was opened so that any student or employee could log into wireless with one’s school username and password. Starting last spring, students began to increasingly bring laptops and tablets to school to support their work. By this fall, many students were observed using devices in classes and during free time, sometimes up to a third of the class in some courses.

The next step was to determine how much flexibility to allow students in device selection. Should students be able to bring any device at all to school, or could we make a move to provide some uniformity to assist with teacher planning and tech support? The tech department acquired different kinds of tablet devices, and faculty members tried them personally and with students. This led to a recommendation and decision — to standardize on iPads in the Middle School and allow a range of devices in the Upper School. Many different factors contributed to this decision: device capabilities, cost to families, platforms used at home, teacher preferences, and BYOD theory.

In the Middle School, all students will bring their own iPad to school beginning in Fall 2013. The iPad was selected based on its balance of capability, simplicity, and portability, the huge number of existing apps, and the many other middle schools that have started iPad programs. This year, Middle School faculty members were provided with an iPad, and our academic technology staff led a series of training events to encourage familiarity with different apps. Middle School faculty members have been asked to develop at least one new activity that takes advantage of student iPads and share it with a colleague. The school provided five iPad carts to classrooms so that teachers could experiment with student iPad use. Next summer, these iPads will become available for purchase by eighth grade families, so that they do not have to purchase a full-price device for one year of middle school use.

For the Upper School, a faculty/student/admin study group considered the range of options for a high school device program, from standardizing on one laptop model to allowing a wide range of student-owned devices. The group quickly reached consensus that both laptop and tablet capability were essential to fulfill the program’s vision. The work of our math department was instrumental in reaching this decision. In our math classes, Sympodium devices are ubiquitous, and other advanced uses take place when possible: writing solutions using a PDF annotation app and a stylus, doing math together from home using a shared virtual whiteboard, and watching teacher videos from home. Teachers in other subject areas are currently exploring the potential of tablets to support learning goals, for example for handwritten feedback on student writing, keeping an electronic science laboratory notebook, and providing a more comfortable form factor for reading electronic texts.

The question of platform standardization was trickier. Should the school standardize on one Windows 8 computer or permit both Windows and Mac in the Upper School? A standardized environment would be more predictable for teachers, whereas a two-platform program would be friendlier to students who prefer Mac. We made the decision to go with two platforms. We would recommend a single Windows model, the same one that we would acquire for our faculty members, but also welcome Mac users. However, Mac users would have to bring both a laptop computer and iPad to school, in order to have the full set of computing capabilities that we want all students to have. This may be a obstacle, or a hassle, but ultimately the choice of spending more to have a Mac will rest with families.

Respecting the high value of student choice, Upper School families will have the option to provide any model of Windows 8 computer that supports both touch and type. The school will announce a single recommended Windows 8 device, the same one that we will provide to our faculty members, but students will be able to bring a different model if they so choose. Students who select the recommended device will naturally be able to receive more technical support from our IT department, since our staff will know that device best. Also, we anticipate that some families will look to the school for purchasing advice, so it will serve them well for the school to provide a recommendation.

The rapid maturation of tablet computing makes this an exciting time for schools. It dramatically increases the number of possible computer uses beyond what is possible with only a laptop computer. Having three modalities (touch, type, stylus) makes the devices match the activities of education better than just a laptop computer. We will also receive the benefits of the energy that software developers are pouring into innovative apps, while we presumably will experience a decline in innovation in desktop apps. At the same time, as long as tablets remain limited in terms of what software they can run, we will still have the full capabilities of laptop computers.

Our preparations for the device programs have involved most parts of the school. The year has featured a steady stream of professional development activities focused on preparing teachers for student computing. Many of these have been worked into pre-existing meeting times, such as faculty meetings and professional development days. Others have been optional, such as Wednesday tech breakfasts and individual consulting with our academic technology staff. We have provided four additional iPad carts for Middle School teachers to develop new class activities before we go 1:1 next fall. Our head of school has written about student computing to the parent body a number of times. The parent council has devoted meeting time to the topic. The business office has dedicated the necessary financial resources, and the financial aid office will ensure equitable access to the program. Our IT staff is preparing in many ways to provide network access, app distribution, network security, technical support, loaner devices, and more. A committee is revising our computer science and technology course offerings. We remain mindful of other issues to address this spring, such as student lockers and availability of classroom power outlets.

Our program is designed to maximize the benefits of student computing while minimizing the negative repercussions. We are indebted to the experiences of schools that have preceded us with conventional laptop programs and shared their experiences. One particularly interesting area to note: student mindfulness. We are excited to learn from the work of Howard Rheingold and others who have tackled the question of student attention in a device-rich environment. We want to maintain the special, highly personal qualities of the student experience at U Prep. Teaching students to maintain mindfulness when using computing devices may be a key to reaching this goal.

The following documents capture our communications to the school community over the last eight months.

Middle School RYOD (November 2012)
Upper School RYOD (November 2012)
Technology Update (September 2012)
Technology Plan (May 2012)

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