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This is a preview chapter from Jamie McKenzie's newest book, Just in Time Technology: Doing Better with Fewer planned for shipping in November of 2002.
Mobile Computing? Easier said than done!
Even though wireless equipment can be moved about and shared, far too many schools are finding movement difficult. In some of the schools I visited in preparation for this book, the laptop carts are so heavy they are never moved.
These frustrating aspects of movement are rarely mentioned in promotional material, but my visits to school sites uncovered many stories of surprises, difficulties, and challenges. While schools had managed to address most of these difficulties, the flexibility and spontaneity of movement hoped for prior to installation was frequently compromised in order to sustain reliability. Even such stories of success were laced with tales of struggles to overcome obstacles.
The Wired (Wireless) Laptop
Depending upon the brand of laptop purchased, short battery life forced many schools to plug laptops into power sources. In one high school, the prime candidate for laptop carts was the science department with its heavily wired lab areas. With network drops and electrical outlets at every lab station, the wireless laptops were fully wired and free from many of the troubles reported when laptops were truly wireless.
The science department was fully engaged in moving, sharing, and deploying the laptops because they could be counted upon to arrive in great working condition just in time. They also had little need for laptops to move around the room, since students would be spending most of their time in fixed lab positions, but if a teacher did want students to perform some computer task offline in the regular part of the classroom, the laptops could be disconnected from the power source for brief periods without depleting their usefulness for the next class.
An English or social studies teacher looking for much more movement and flexibility within a regular classroom would not find power and network outlets to support the kind of wired use enjoyed by the science teachers. They would consider the need to plug laptops into power strips a major limiting factor. In that school, the science department was the only department making frequent use of laptops.
This school found that truly free-ranging wireless laptops often suffered performance slow downs due to demanding network software. In one program making use of 50 truly wireless laptops residing in a double classroom, the network software had to be removed from the laptops. The softwares overhead had placed a heavy load on the wireless operation within that space.
The Immobile Mobile
The school mentioned earlier found that the truly wireless laptops worked best when they were kept in one location all year. They kept 50 laptops in one double classroom space that allowed network staff to stabilize the system and iron out problems that frequently cropped up when carts were moved up and down hallways.
This school was excited about the potential of wireless mobile computing as a delivery system, but labs of desktop computers remained the primary access for classes and students. The prospect of replacing some of those labs in the next few years with laptop carts was attractive, but movement in that direction had slowed down as the mobility and performance of wireless laptops proved quirkier than expected.
Given a choice between a somewhat risky delivery system (mobile wireless carts) and a more stable one (labs), teachers were still inclined toward the predictability of desktop units plugged into infrastructure.
Even when everything functions properly, technology-rich activities are generally seen as challenging by teachers. They have little tolerance for network systems and computers that crash or stumble. The greater the stress associated with the activity, the smaller the cadre of teachers willing to give such activities a try.
In many of the buildings I visited, truly wireless use of the laptops was rare, as compromises were seen as necessary to deliver good performance.
In one elementary school, the laptop carts were too heavy and the stairways too numerous to allow easy movement, so they were permanently parked in closets with copy machines, and students had learned to walk down the hallways to pick up the laptops needed for that days lessons. Far from disappointed with this system, the school had come to embrace it as quite practical and as surprisingly evenhanded, as they found that laptops circulated with more speed in that way.
Some schools allow teachers to sign out carts for days and weeks at a time, while others encourage more frequent movement, dividing up days into thirds at the elementary level, for example. In such schools, teachers are expected to roll the laptop cart back and forth so that other classrooms have a chance to use the equipment.
This scheduled movement and sharing maximizes daily use, eliminates down time and reaches the most students at the least cost, but the strategy is costly in human terms, as the stress and effort required to roll carts back and forth is mentioned by many teachers as a real problem.
Sharing a cart within a particular department can alleviate many of these cartage fees if all of those classrooms are clustered in the same part of the building. Likewise, several middle school teams in one wing of a building might share a laptop cart for their area.
Some schools create mini labs of laptops in common public hallway spaces within view of classrooms and make students move to the computers.
Security and Procedures
Concerned about battery life, damage, and theft, many schools have developed quite demanding procedures that can reduce the attractiveness of mobile computing. While such procedures seem necessary, they can frustrate busy classroom teachers.
One district found that students were generally not reliable when plugging used laptops back into the carts recharging system. Those uncharged units might then be unavailable for several classes and would cause unpleasant surprises. To guarantee complete charging, the district strengthened its expectation that teachers would personally plug all units back into the cart.
Many schools have tightened procedures in ways that increase the load on the teacher who hopes to use the carts. Well intended though these procedures may be, they may become barriers to frequent, comfortable use. The more burdensome the regulations, the smaller the likelihood that this system will be embraced broadly by staff, many of whom may have little time or appetite for heroics.
If teachers can inspire students to act responsibly and minimize the need for such procedures, broad use of the equipment is more likely. Likewise, if vendors can create products less susceptible to human error, more teachers and schools will welcome mobile computing.
Plug and Play
Every school I visited had come to view mobile computing as a delivery system in early developmental stages - an incomplete product with many irksome and quirky features. While they shared visions of carts rolling easily up and down hallways with a high degree of reliability and user friendliness, the current reality was quite different. I encountered considerable disillusionment but little pessimism. Pioneers in the use of this strategy, most of the schools were committed to making whatever local adjustments were necessary to reach their original vision.
At the same time, many of the schools were disappointed in vendors who had promised much but often delivered a product that was flawed in some respects. Creating reliable wireless network zones that could be counted to serve all classrooms with consistently strong performance had proven to be a bigger challenge than many had anticipated. And then, too, changes in system software would sometimes force a revision of a working solution.
The Team Schedule
Optimal use at the elementary level is likely to occur when pairs or trios of teachers in neighboring classrooms sign up for a laptop cart for several days or a week at a time. They then handle the hour-by-hour movement of the cart from room to room in a somewhat informal manner, shifting resources back and forth across a hallway as needed.
They have enough equipment at hand to accomplish something deep and worthwhile, but they also have neighbors who will take the laptops when they are no longer needed. The sharing takes the pressure off any one teacher to use the equipment all day long or feel guilty about glowing screensavers.
Scheduling and sharing within a single department works in much the same way at the middle school and high school levels.
Offering only brief time slots for individuals tends to encourage trivial pursuit and tangential activities.
Allowing individuals long chunks of time without sharing can prove wasteful and divisive, as even the most zealous teacher is likely to put the laptops aside throughout the day while discussions and other activities occur. Resentments can flourish when other teachers see the equipment languishing or being hogged.
The Unit Mandate
In order to prevent domination of equipment by early adopters and enthusiasts, curriculum units are adopted school wide. These units call for judicious, blended use of new technologies.
Perhaps the fourth-grade science curriculum calls for a two-week unit on acid rain, a two-week unit on weather and a two-week unit on simple machines. Unit plans created during the summer by teams of teachers are adopted as mandatory curriculum experiences. Blending the best of new technologies with the best of classical learning strategies, all fourth grade teachers know that they will need to schedule the laptop cart during these three units. The only question becomes which weeks will work best for each teacher and each class.
Experimenting and Adapting
A spirit of enthusiastic innovation persisted across the schools I visited. Even though mobile computing had proven much more challenging than these schools had expected, they remained eager and committed to the principles that had won them over to the strategy in the first place.
One of the goals of this book is to protect newcomers from the surprises and disillusionment sometimes experienced by early adopters. By sharing stories of issues and problems, the next wave of schools should be able to avoid weak batteries, heavy laptop carts and ponderous network software.
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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.