Archive for Laptop programs

Students Know How To Reduce Distractions

Facilitating student discussion is a complex talk. Pose engaging questions, keep the conversation momentum going, stay on topic, and encourage quieter voices to participate. Could two Upper School boys guide their peers through 45 minutes of discussion about electronic devices and distractions? Yes, they did! Our guides, “Mr. H.” and “Mr. G.,” did such a great job that I simply relaxed and enjoyed the conversation.

The group of 14 students generated a long list of techniques for minimizing distractions, as high quality a set of suggestions as any I have seen experts write.

  • Only check Twitter on your phone, not your computer.
  • Use a timer to work for specific chunks of time.
  • Set your phone to Do Not Disturb when you work.
  • Install the Self Control or Concentrate app to block access to social sites.
  • Charge your phone in another room.
  • Have a parent keep your phone.
  • Learn which music helps you concentrate and which distracts.
  • Don’t start a Netflix episode on a break.
  • Use distraction-free (full screen) mode when writing or reading.

The students went far beyond strategies. They explored the paradoxes and tradeoffs that they experience. Stay up late to get more done one night, and you are less productive the next day. Sports force you to be more organized but can also make you tired. School firewalls may keep social sites away but do not teach you self control. Homework can actually be more active than class time.

Did the students solve the problem of distraction from devices? Not at all! While they know the strategies, they acknowledge that they do not always use them. Self-discipline is complex. It is uncomfortable to work for hours at night, tough to resist social interactions. This suggests a new focus for education around devices and distractions. Learning strategies is just the first step. Setting meaningful goals, building self discipline, and practicing mindfulness are equally, if not more important.

Uses of Technology to Enhance Formative Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

CiC Tech Formative DifferentiatedAcademic Technology Director Jeff Tillinghast and I have co-authored an article for Curriculum In Context, the journal of the Washington State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an ASCD affiliate. We wrote a practitioner’s view of how our teachers use contemporary computing technologies to provide specific, rapid, and varied feedback to students and then accordingly adjust individual student instruction. Read the article (PDF) or access the full issue. Many thanks to Seattle Pacific University professor David Denton for inviting us to contribute to the journal.


Attention and Mindfulness in Technology Use: Five Perspectives

U Prep facilitates professional development opportunities for the individual teacher, group of teachers, and whole faculty. This year, at least three of these sessions consider our new iPad and laptop program, wholly within the context of principles of teaching and learning and youth development. Today, we explored the topic of attention and mindfulness in the context of technology use.

On the one hand, we are working hard so that our school keeps up with rapid technological changes occurring in society. The main feature is a huge infusion of tablet and laptop devices that we have placed in students’ hands, plus consideration of how to change our instructional practices to take advantage of the many capabilities of this change.

At the same time, we heard a clear message from our community as we designed the program last year—we want and need balance in our lives. Balance between high-tech and low-tech learning environments; balance between email and face-to-face communication; balance between productivity and reflective practice.

What does imbalance look like? When we feel compelled to answer emails at our desk instead of seeing colleagues in the staff room. When we spend hours addressing a technical problem instead of getting work done. When we find students watching a video or playing a game instead of paying attention to class. Looking to the future, one might image a dystopic view of technology in our lives. Let’s take a look.

In one of our faculty summer reads, William Powers wrote:

We’re losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word, depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.

What does balance look like? When tech is truly complementary, part of the environment, rather than taking center stage. When we have the necessary self-control to avoid immediately responding to that ding, buzz, or alert window. When we feel that our humanity is preserved in our very personal practice of living and working within a learning community.

Again, quoting William Powers:

History is replete with moments when some astonishing new invention came along that suddenly made it easier for people to connect across space and time. And those earlier shifts were as exhilarating and confusing to those who lived through them as today’s are to us.

Even in a hyper-connected world, everyone has the ability to regulate his or her own experience. It’s the same theme that great thinkers have struck time after time over the last two thousand years, but it keeps getting forgotten. The answer to our dilemma is hiding in the last place we tend to look: our own minds. The best tool for fighting back is still the mind itself.

We must move a step forward in our understanding of attention and mindfulness, so that we may open the classroom to technology without feeling ruled by it.

How do we achieve this? First, let’s understand that the study of attention and mindfulness with technology is an emerging field. Different approaches exist: some support each other. Others contradict. It’s quite likely that some combination of approaches will be best.

Let’s take a look at five approaches to attention and mindfulness in a technology-rich world. We may identify which aspects of these approaches have the most potential, so that we may implement them broadly throughout the school, incorporate them into our behavioral and professional norms and expectations.

Executive Function

This topic asks what brain research can tell us about learning and technology use. Karen Bradley, a teacher at Head-Royce School in Oakland, describes executive functions as, “our judgment, the ability to set priorities, to choose a ‘go’ versus a ‘no-go’ action, to distinguish junk from useful information.” The use of executive function is critical for young people to learn, as they make decisions about whether to pay attention in class, do homework, and consider thematic concepts in the curriculum.

Frequent interruptions by technology may impede executive function, as students lack the “quiet space” to think deeply, and as their working memory is bombarded by new inputs. Brain scientists such as John Medina tell us that multitasking is a myth, that frequently switching our attention is a detriment to productive thought.

Let’s take a whimsical look at multitasking with designer Paolo Cardini.

[ted id=1622]

Megan Reimann is an expert in special education. She has taught study skills, resource room, language arts, and social studies and is a U Prep ninth grade parent. Megan currently specializes in working with students who have executive function deficits to help them create strong study habits. Megan ran one of our breakout sessions during the professional development day.


Our second topic is mindfulness. Did you know that you may actually hold your breath when you open your email app to check for new messages? The tense moment of uncertainty—what’s in there?—triggers our fight-or-flight response; our physiology is on high alert while we wait to find out.

How is our quality of life when these moments of alertness happen all day, in quick succession? What can we do to create contemplative spaces and improve our quality of life? How may we teach our students to do the same?

David Levy is a professor at UW’s Information School and an expert in information, contemplative practices, and the quality of life. David is a former computer scientist, researcher on the nature of documents, and student of calligraphy and bookbinding. Dr. Levy’s more recent work has focused on contemplative practices, the quality of life, and how to use digital tools more mindfully. He gave a superb talk on the activities teachers can organize for their students to promote self-awareness and mindfulness. This video provides a brief introduction to his work.


This topic looks at attention and mindfulness from the perspective of student engagement. Maybe our students and their technologies aren’t the problem. Maybe our educational paradigm needs to change instead.

Cathy Davidson, another of our summer book authors, asks whether we need to update our definitions of attention and engagement. She argues that distraction actually helps us receive a variety of input that supports creativity, connection, and collaboration. Instead of keeping technology at arm’s length, perhaps we should embrace it and change our educational environments to match. Information is no longer scarce, and teachers have a new, exciting role to play as the architects of student-directed learning environments. Progressive education and project-based learning meet technology in this topic.

In this video, Alan November describes one such learning experience (jump to 3:35).

Further reading:

Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design” (Mizuko Ito et al)

Exploring the Edge: New Learning Environments for the 21st Century” (John Seeley Brown)


This topic asks whether we feel uncomfortable with technology simply because we have not fully mastered it. Alerts and notifications can be turned off. We can get better at how we use communication and collaboration tools, so that they truly become part of the background of our educational environment.

In Send, David Shipley provides perspectives and techniques to allow you to take control of your email inbox.

Howard Rheingold invites us to tune our “crap detector” and “attention muscles” (to borrow a term from David Levy) to restore control over our electronic interactions. “Dive into the deep end,” Rheingold tells us.

Clay Shirky says that the problem is not information overload, rather it is filter failure. The key skill now is to be able to set up systems to bring the most relevant, stimulating content to our attention.

Further reading:

Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies” (Howard Rheingold)

It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure” (Clay Shirky)

Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy” (Alison Seaman)

Students’ Social Media Lives

What are students doing behind those screens? Anthropologists Mimi Ito and danah boyd have a lot to tell us about how young people experience life through social media. Understanding their perspectives may help us work with students in classes and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of separating students from their devices.

Further reading:

Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (MacArthur Foundation)

Teens and Technology 2013” (Pew Research Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)

Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” (Pew Research Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)

iPad and Laptop Program Guide

Herewith, please find a guide to the new U Prep iPad and laptop program, written for families. It describes the program in detail, including device guidelines. I am really excited about the quality of our preparations this year. Faculty members have been actively experimenting with and thinking about new uses of student devices, particularly tablet-based computing.

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iPad and Laptop Program Guide

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)

Laptops and Tablets for Academic Purpose

University Prep is working to design the details of its RYOD (require your own device) program for the next academic year. Central to the process is clear identification of the pedagogical and curricular purposes for requiring each student to bring a computing device to school every day.

Schools implement student computing programs to varying degrees. At some, students come up with effective uses for the devices, but the overall instructional program changes little. Other schools make fundamental changes such as fully adopting eTexts or shifting instruction toward 21st century skills.

Whether related to technology or not, school initiatives have a greater chance of successful implementation when they align well with other activities at the school. By this reasoning, a new 1:1 student device program will have a greater chance of significantly improving student learning if it complements one or more other instructional initiatives at the school.

If a school simply introduces more technology without a corresponding change in the learning environment, then a very good chance exists that the technology initiative will not reach its full potential. Technology initiatives have the potential to underwhelm when introduced separately from other school changes.

Here is first stab at a roadmap, or menu, of changes in the learning environment that the introduction of student devices could complement.

  • Electronic organization of learning materials
  • Collaborative notetaking
  • Peer review and writing process
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Self-paced learning
  • Formative assessment
  • Project-based learning
  • eTexts, flexbooks, and other electronic resources
  • Multimodal instruction
  • Unified assignments calendar
  • Unified course web site system
  • Hybrid/blended learning
  • Flex weekly timetable
  • Information literacy curriculum
  • Education for 21st century skills (creativity, collaboration, communication, etc.)
Do you know student laptop or tablet programs that fit this model? That differ? That complement an instructional initiative not on the list? I’d like to hear from you.