Becoming a Netbook Teacher

With regards to school technology: netbooks are going to change everything.

When a teacher receives a complete set of netbooks for his or her classroom, their teaching methods are going to dramatically change. I don't say this to be an alarmist or to be sensational, but I simply state it as a matter of fact from what I've witnessed in my trials of netbooks in classrooms. Imagine for a moment being a teacher in a one-to-one classroom where you stand at the front of the room looking over your students at their desks with their netbooks open ready to be instructed. What do you do? Before I go on, I must say that being a teacher in a one-to-one classroom does not mean that you've become the old-fashioned computer teacher, but rather a paradigm shift in education is about to occur. Instead, you need to become the teacher who provides instruction using a netbook as an educational tool.  The following section illustrates this paradigm shift.

Outlining a Typical Day in a Netbook Classroom

Let's take a moment to look at what a typical day in a 1 to 1 environment might look like within a fourth-grade netbook classroom. As any successful teacher will tell you, having tasks for students to do immediately when they enter the classroom is one of the best classroom management strategies there is. In the days before netbooks, that assignment could include some reading, writing work, or math problems that had been posted on the board or copied onto a paper document for students to focus on. Envision instead a classroom with netbooks: Students would quietly come into the room to get their netbooks from the bins where they've been charging overnight, return with them to their desks, open their netbooks, log into the network and then check their e-mail to find the assignment from their teacher that has been prepared the previous day. A typical beginning of the day classroom exercise might be as follows:

Students begin with 10 minutes of keyboarding followed by 10 minutes of practicing math skills such as fractions. Following this, they are then instructed to send an e-mail to the teacher that documents their high score from the fraction activity. This would be followed with an online lesson from AtomicLearning.com on creating spreadsheets. When students complete the spreadsheet lesson, they type up a few notes and email the document to the teacher to be graded. Once they complete all their morning tasks, can then go to FunBrain.com and read "The Diary of a Wimpy Kid" online while they wait for the other students to finish.

This typical beginning of the day example outlines how a netbook might be integrated into daily instruction. Total time used is about 45 minutes of interaction with the netbooks and from my experience, I would recommend about that amount of time for a fourth-grade classroom.

Now let’s refocus and envision this same activity through the eyes of the teacher. The students have entered his or her room, picked up their netbooks, put on their headphones and have started to work. Seeing this in reality is absolutely amazing! When a entire classroom of students are completely engaged, there is nothing more exciting. The teacher now monitors the students by walking around the room and checking to make sure that students have their fingers on the right keys and in the right positions during the keyboarding exercise. The teacher can also monitor student performance on netbook driven tasks using a quick formative check point or by working one-on-one with a student who needs a little extra help. Imagine starting each and every day with 45 minutes of instruction that fully engages students and allows teachers the flexibility to intake formative assessment data, work one-on-one with students or to get materials and structures in place to create a smooth transition to the next part of the day's lessons.

Continuing on with our day...

After the students have completed their morning netbook driven tasks, they put their netbooks away and then go to library for 30 minutes. Following library time, they return to the classroom before going out to recess. Students come back from recess, get their netbooks and have them ready for note taking when their teacher starts a state history lesson. For the note taking process, the students are using Google Docs, which is an online word processor. In this particular lesson, students are sharing their state history notes with four other students within the classroom. Essentially, they are all collaborating on one document together, while working at their own desks. Their final product will consist of a document with notes from the teacher’s lesson containing five different perspectives. The teacher then directs the student groups to use the Internet to do some additional research on an identified topic related to the lesson. Groups then summarize their findings in their own words at the end of their Google Docs document. Since the teacher is also set up as a collaborator on the same document, he or she is able to log-in and check the paper and give feedback or a grade.

By now it is time for lunch and the students return their netbooks back to the bins to be charged while they go to lunch.

Upon returning from lunch, the teacher spends a short time instructing students about a new reading strategy which students then practice for 20 minutes using an individualized online reading assignment. Reading is then followed by a writing exercise and then on to math. Since the students have already practiced the fraction activities from that morning, they are well prepared to continue their lesson on fractions.

Once the teacher directed math lesson is over, the students retrieve their netbooks from the bins again. The morning lesson on spreadsheets has prepared students to create their own spreadsheet in which they will organize environmental data that they had previously gathered with data probes attached to the netbooks. As a scaffolding support, students can revisit the morning’s online spreadsheet lesson using AtomicLearning.com. The final spreadsheet, which is created using Google Docs, is saved and the teacher can have access to it at any time, from any computer.

The teacher and students continue going back and forth between traditional teaching and netbook teaching as the afternoon rolls on. During one activity, a group of students use a netbook to video-chat with students in Alaska, whom they met through ePals.com. They chat about an environmental experiment that they are planning on doing together in a few weeks. The students in Alaska are going to collect the data and the students in Colorado are going to creating the podcast to present the team’s findings.

Since students crave “free time” on the netbooks -- an opportunity for them to do whatever they want, within the prescribed boundaries of the teacher -- they work hard so that they can have flex time at the end of the day. Some students have earned 10 minutes of “free time”. One group works together on a podcast, while others finish some missed lessons, and others watch animations about nanotechnology.

The primary aspect that I want teachers to take away from this example of a typical netbook day is that netbooks should enhance traditional teaching and should not make it harder. Netbooks should provide flexibility so that teachers can prepare lessons, implement formative assessments, differentiate for ability and learning style and work with individual or small groups of students. It is also important to note, that a netbook classroom is not a group of kids just plugged into computers like zombies. When implemented properly, netbooks allow students to interact, collaborate and work together on projects, self-direct and take ownership of their learning. Netbook teaching enhances traditional teaching. It does not replace it.