It has been less than three months into the new school year, yet those in charge at the Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota are ready to announce the experiment of their one laptop per student program as a success. Teachers are already reporting that equipping the students with the digital devices have increased their engagement, streamlined communication, and allowed students to clear out some space in both their backpacks and their lockers by getting rid of cumbersome traditional textbooks in favor of electronic academic materials.
This year represents the first of a three-year plan that will have every student at Cathedral receiving a device of their own. This fall, 235 very portable MacBook Air laptops were handed out to 7th and 8th-graders. Michael Mullin, the school president, said the results so far are quite encouraging. Even though administrators and faculty are aware that this is only a pilot year of the program and the purpose is to observe and draw conclusions aimed at making the next two years of the program a success, keeping the excitement to a minimum is a challenge.
Cathedral is leasing 270 computers on three-year leases from Apple. Each machine costs the school district about $1,000, and the money came from the school's general fund. Planning for the program began last year and centered on who would use them, not just on the tools. The remaining 35 machines were given to teachers who would decide the best way to use them.
Mullin said that the key to making the program a success – both during the planning and the implementation stage – was to keep the faculty intimately involved in it. He explained that equipping the students came second to equipping the teachers and making sure that they had the tools to make successful use out of the new technology. Prior to handing out the laptops to students, it was important that the teachers had a certain level of comfort with them.
Getting kids comfortable with the tech proved to be much less of a challenge. If the experience of 12-year-old Sophia O'Neal is anything to go by, having constant access to a keyboard and a computer screen in class was just a continuation of the environment they live in when not in school.
Still, some facets of using computers for learning are new even to digitally savvy kids. O'Neal said that using a digital textbook was quite different than using a traditional book — but that didn't mean that it suffered in comparison.
"I like the laptops for the books," O'Neal said. "When we have our textbooks online, we don't have to bring our books to class or home for homework."
As for the teachers, what they appreciate most is that the laptops made keeping in touch with their students much easier. Tina Scheierl, who teaches world geography, explained that each one of her classes has their own course webpage which lists assignments, notes and any helpful hints. They also encourage two-way communication via forums and email.