Student Laptops and Classroom Management

I wrote the following in response to a teacher at a school with a brand-new laptop program. They’re all getting started with laptops and the students, but it sounded like the professional development time was pretty slim in terms of preparing the teachers for how to manage the laptops in the classroom.

We’re working on a more formal set of recommendations for our US teachers this year, but so far this is a draft of ten ideas for classroom management in a laptop environment. Many of these ideas were gleaned from the first year of our MS laptop program.

1) Start small, and then grow. Students want to use the laptops, and they aren’t going to “hate them” if their use in the classroom is infrequent at first. Teachers need to feel in the driver’s seat, and the kids need to know that use in the classroom is a privilege and not a right. So, at the very start, the laptops may only be used by a few students at once. If you’re doing several small groups, for example, one student may be the recorder of ideas, and you only have a handful of laptop-using students to monitor instead of everyone. Praise their good use, attack their mis-deeds. Circle the room as much as possible, and any “sudden closing of lids” is a sure sign of guilt. If being used in small groups, a mis-use is grounds for “no longer being the recorder” that day or week.

2) For the first “full class” use of laptops, make sure it’s a focused assignment all kids are doing at once, and that you have time to actively circulate as they do the assignment (such as writing a paragraph about something, or visiting a specific website for information). If you can really circulate and shape the use of the class the first couple of times the laptops are used, you’ll be setting a good future example.

3) Create a culture of good laptop use. This means that good academic uses by individual students should be praised, but mis-uses should be acknowledged and possibly affect everyone’s use. If several people can’t manage to use the laptops correctly on Tuesday, then perhaps non-laptop projects should be done by everyone for a few days. Assign a paper to be done longhand, for example, for everyone if you need to. The point here is that the classroom needs to respect and use the computer as a tool, and not a toy. Taking away the benefits of the tool can be strong motivator for improving the classroom culture.

4) Lids down. When you are talking and you don’t want “half” of the kids attention, make sure that all computer lids are put down. Make everyone wait until all lids are down, and they are to stay down until you say so. I wish our administrators would do this in meetings.

5) Hold off on “note taking with computers.” One of the hardest things for kids to do with a fully wireless environment is to simply take good notes with a laptop. This is a more advanced challenge for students, and as a result you may not even want to try it until you have a good culture of laptop use. Some schools even bought laptops with remove-able wireless cards so that all the kids would yank the cards when they wanted them to take notes, but no one does that anymore. For a kid who’s really causing trouble, you could have his/her wireless card turned off or disabled.

6) Don’t look for technological solutions. Many teachers would like to use NetOP or similar software to see all the kids’ screens during a class. This is kind of a joke, and it’s better just to circulate in the classroom. We do use Apple Remote Desktop 3, and we can “record” a classroom of student screens for a teacher to analyze afterwards, but for real-time management such tools don’t work well. Non-virtual proximity control is a better idea.

7) Don’t forget your established skills. We’ve been amazed by career teachers who seemed to “give up” on management as soon as the kids have computers. All the same tools work for managing kids—the computers simply need to be put and kept in their place and used as you want them used.

8) Consider having GURL Watcher software installed—so you can show kids how the software records logs of all software and websites visited, and their times, as proof of misuse. This is a great deterrent if made obvious to everyone and one or two clear cases are known to everyone.

9) Be realistic. Kids need time to develop maturity with the use of laptops as tools. They’ve had years to use them as toys, and they aren’t going to use them as tools overnight. That’s why we recommend a slow and cumulative approach, in which kids earn the privilege of using the laptops more frequently. If the kids fight this, then they shouldn’t use the laptops for awhile, and then the process is slowly started again.

10) Victory is different for different kids. Some kids will blow you way with innovative uses and processes and results. Other kids will have more basic achievements. Some will really struggle. Try to find ways to celebrate all sorts of different successes. One of my favorites is to share a screenshot of a student’s desktop who has really organized his/her work in a clear, logically manner. I’ve seen students use over a hundred stickies, grouped by color for different projects and needs, to organize notes and work. Pretty brilliant, and I was happy to share it. Such celebrations build the culture, and also enable students more ownership in the process.

Feel free to post a comment to this list if you have additional ideas and recommendations. I’d be happy to make it 20 or 30 tips!

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