Jul 22 2008

Data Saves the Day

Reading the Signs

Data Saves the Day


Chris Rother

Michael Girard

This spring, British Columbia’s Central Okanagan School District pulled the plug on its one-to-one notebook program halfway through a planned implementation of 10,000 notebooks in grades seven through 12. Meanwhile, five years after a $12.5 million one-to-one deployment in grades three through 11, Quebec’s Eastern Township School Board (ETSB) has committed to continue its program. What could lead to such disparate results for these two districts? Two key differences: long-term commitment and data collection.

The Central Okanagan project will end without a benefits analysis. That’s unfortunate, says Ron Canuel, ETSB director-general, because it takes time and research to understand the impact of one-to-one computing. This year, ETSB surveyed 4,500 teachers, administrators, parents and students to gauge progress toward three goals: improving literacy, improving numeracy and reducing the dropout rate. All stakeholders credited the notebooks with improvements in teaching and learning, citing improved research and organizational skills and new levels of student engagement.

Although the survey didn’t quantify learning gains, more than eight of 10 students said they wanted to keep the notebooks and that the PCs made work “more interesting.” More than seven in 10 teachers also wanted to continue the program, as well as a majority of principals and parents.

Timing Counts

While students immediately accepted the computers and integrated them into their daily routines, Canuel says, some adults struggled, in turn testing the school’s commitment to the program.

Addressing that issue intelligently was the key to ETSB’s ultimate decision to continue its one-to-one program. Canuel, and researchers such as the University of Maine’s David Silvernail, caution against premature data collection. Both researchers stress that one-to-one programs are a disruptive innovation, and it takes a minimum of three to five years to realize the pedagogical impact. In fact, Canuel admits the ETSB findings may not have been as positive if the district hadn’t waited five years and instead completed its survey two or three years ago.

The Central Okanagan experience lends credence to Canuel’s hypothesis. Two years into the deployment the district didn’t see the results it wanted. Instead, it faced an unbalanced budget, mounting repair bills and even student-led protests about carrying notebooks to and from school.

ETSB, on the other hand, stood firm in its promise of a comprehensive study of the program. Today, the district is armed with data to silence even its most vocal critics. Plus, the survey will help the district build on its success. For example, notebook integration is uneven across teachers and grade levels. In some ETSB elementary schools, teachers and students are collaborating to produce and implement lesson plans. In these classrooms, one-to-one delivers on its promise to transform education with teachers conducting higher-level learning experiences. Yet other teachers struggle to make such a transition. “We need to identify the conditions that facilitate effective integration,” states Canuel. Then success can build on itself.

Notebooks Earn Top Grades in Writing

Where can school districts get the biggest bang from one-to-one programs? Research shows writing is the winner. According the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, middle school students are more likely to edit work on the notebook. The center’s research also shows a statistically significant improvement in standardized writing scores five years after the state’s ambitious notebook initiative began. In 2005, 49 percent of eighth-graders in Maine were proficient in writing, compared to just 29 percent in 2000. Over the same period, math scores were static, science scores grew slightly and reading scores dropped slightly.

South Dakota Schools Step Up

Funding remains the largest hurdle for schools trying to implement one-to-one programs. But as South Dakota lawmakers struggle with whether to continue their statewide mission to equip all high school students with computers, two schools have vowed to keep their program, state money or not. ● Chester (S.D.) Schools, one of 20 districts to pilot the Classroom Connections program, will keep the program and still plans to extend it to middle school. ● Dupree (S.D.) School District 64-2 will also keep the program, citing student progress.

<p>Michael Girard</p>