Mill Springs Academy's Paul Barkley says Lenovo ThinkPads give the school's special needs students the tools they need to succeed.
Jun 04 2010

Notebook Programs Transform Learning

One-to-one computing helps special needs students shine.

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Above and beyond. At Mill Springs Academy, notebook computers that students
buy through a one-to-one program take the school's 315 special needs
students to a new level.

“With PowerPoint or other presentation software on their computers,
they can make something that looks and sounds really good, which may be the
first time they've been able to do that,” says Paul Barkley, director
of technology at the Alpharetta, Ga., school.

Shelley Robinson, a fifth- and sixth-grade math teacher at Mill Springs,
agrees. She says the notebooks help the students excel in ways they couldn't
in the past.

The technology gives them the confidence to tackle their school work, Robinson
adds. They learn better with the devices because the notebooks and software
tools offer a way around obstacles that had prevented them from advancing
previously, she says.

Just about all the students at Mill Springs have learning disabilities, so
to create a flexible work environment that makes learning easier, the school
offers notebook computers to all of its students.

Families who have children attending Mill Springs have the option of purchasing
directly from the school. Computers may be purchased outside
of the school's program, but Barkley discourages it because he can't
offer the same level of support. Technical support is important in schools
because students may drop, spill food and drinks on, or otherwise damage their
computers, says Barkley. Outside computers are not covered by the maintenance
program, he adds.

The school has deployed an extensive Cisco
wireless network across the campus to support the notebooks, says
Barkley. “We have wireless access everywhere on the built-out part of
our 85-acre campus,” he says.

More Attention

Barkley explains that some students are dyslexic, some are mildly autistic
and almost all have some degree of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
and require more supervision than they would get in public school. These students
attend Mill Springs because the class sizes are between seven and eight students,
instead of the more typical 20 to 30. The teachers can offer closer supervision
and hands-on mentoring in these smaller classes.

"Students come to us for a variety of reasons," Robinson says. "They're bright, but might not have been able to show it in traditional classrooms."

The notebooks have become an invaluable tool, she says. In math classes,
dysgraphic students with handwriting challenges may have had trouble writing
numbers and equations on paper by hand because the practice can be slow, possibly
frustrating and even disrupting to their thought process. Computers let them
be much more efficient, Robinson says, adding that students type their work
much faster than when putting pencil to paper.

Robinson also uses an interactive whiteboard in place of a blackboard. A
screen capture from the whiteboard can be e-mailed to students, allowing them
to review, manipulate or print the material according to their needs. They
don't have to take notes detailing the board's contents; instead
they have the exact work shown in class by the teacher, accessible anytime
they need it.

Barkley says teachers at Mill Springs help address individual students'
needs using a variety of electronic tools. For instance, teachers use online
programs that offer print media in various electronic formats.

Additionally, specialized software can be tailored for students on their
computers. Mill Springs has a few dozen students who use Dragon
speech-to-text software. The school is also testing
other speech-to-text programs, he adds. Speech-to-text software facilitates
more efficient student work by directly transcribing a student's spoken
words to text without them having to write it out by hand, a task that can
be troublesome for dysgraphic students.

Understanding how to use technology tools helps students during their K–12
experience and after high school as well, Barkley explains. “We have
kids who learned to use Dragon here and have gone on to use it in college.”

The percentage of schools surveyed that say one-to-one computing increases high-stakes test scores.

Source: Preliminary Findings, C2010 Project RED: One-to-One Institute, The Greaves Group, The Hayes Connection; based on responses from 997 schools

Popular on All Fronts

Mill Springs Academy is among a growing number of K–12 schools that
mandate students be equipped with their own computers along with the networking
facilities to use them.

“This kind of program has been growing quickly in the last two years,”
says Scott McLeod, an associate professor at Iowa State University and director
of its Center for Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education.

Students armed with their own computers can learn more effectively because
the resources are always at hand, McLeod says.

“If you have a computer with you all the time, it becomes yours,”
he says of one-to-one programs. “You don't have to worry about
files being overwritten by someone else. You have all the tools for content
creation to use when and where you need them.”

Chris Alfano, systems administrator at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA),
says the high school academy, which is a partnership between the School District
of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute, is a big advocate of providing
notebooks to more students.

“You can't assume they have access to one” at home or elsewhere,
Alfano says, adding that without a notebook computer, students can't
access a vast and growing array of information, applications and other educational
tools that have become important to learning.

Alfano, who oversees about 580 notebooks assigned to students at SLA, added
a new wrinkle to making computers an everyday part of students' lives.
He drafted students to help out with the daily maintenance of the machines
and to provide backup and repair services during after-school programs.

“It helps keep them involved” with the computers every day by
making them even more responsible for the computers, which is an important
part of a successful one-to-one program, Alfano says.

One-to-One Tips

  • Offer onsite repair and maintenance. Mill Springs Academy has a certified technician; the Science Leadership Academy relies on student-run maintenance programs.
  • Work with the teachers. Help teachers understand a notebook's role in learning and how to integrate the units effectively into everyday classroom activities.
  • Be specific about the program's goals. Schools need to set milestones, such as making the notebook an integral part of a student's daily classwork and homework.
  • Set realistic goals. Initially, focus on new learning opportunities that notebooks offer versus measurable gains in academic performance or test scores. If the program is working well, academic achievement will naturally follow.
Quantrell Colbert