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Taking the Classroom Home

by Fred D. Baldwin

A bell rings. About two dozen seventh-graders bounce into the classroom. Every single one of them carries a laptop computer housed in a shiny metallic case with bright blue corner bumpers. The kids laugh, chatter, and jostle each other as they take their seats, but within a minute or two they're all logged onto the Internet. Another minute and they're comparing screens: "Check it out!" "Aw, that's weird!" "Cool!"

Their social studies teacher, Gary Bell, asks for volunteers. Lots of hands go up. Bell calls on Hank Clay, who reads from an article headed "Christians, Muslims Clash in Riot-Torn Indonesia." Bell explains the meaning of an unfamiliar word ("mosque") and then calls on Jessica Shook. She reads a CNN report on tornado damage the previous evening. Soon Bell has a discussion started.

These students attend the Towns County Middle School (grades 6–8) in Hiawassee, Georgia. They're participants in an ambitious demonstration, supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), to make computers and the Internet as integral to learning as books and blackboards and almost as easy to use. Stephen H. Smith, the school's principal, says the idea evolved from the much more modest goal of equipping all teachers with laptops for their own use.

"They said, 'But what about the kids?'" Smith recalls. "We talked about how, in our remote rural community, you go into any business—a gas station, a restaurant—and they're using computers. And our kids were getting maybe an hour a day on them. From there on, our vision got a little bigger." With the help of a grant from ARC, the school equipped all 270 of its middle schoolers with laptops designed by NetSchools Corporation, a California-based firm.

Kid-Proof Computers

The laptops use infrared (IR) ports for wireless connections to the school's local area network, which in turn connects to the Internet through a school-based server. The computers boot up when their cases are opened, and IR ports in the case lids establish data transmission links with sensors in classroom ceilings. Students can then choose between conventional applications like word processing and spreadsheets, or, with the touch of the browser button, a high-speed Internet connection.

NetSchools advertises its machines as "kid-proof." They contain almost no moving parts to get out of alignment: no floppy drive, no CD-ROM, not even a hard drive (replaced by 40 megabytes of solid state memory). Those bright blue rubber bumpers absorb shocks to their waterproof magnesium cases. They're built to withstand being dropped or having drinks spilled on their keyboards. They're battery-powered, and no cords or cables are needed in the classroom.

Students can take the machines home and use a jack to connect over phone lines to the Internet, but only through the school's server, which is equipped to filter out inappropriate Internet sites. That is, the school serves as the family's Internet service provider, at least where its own computers are concerned.

The school issued the computers in September, after intensive training in their use—not just for the kids, but for their parents as well. Smith says that no student received a computer until at least one parent or guardian had completed eight hours of "computer camp" offered at various times during August (day and evening, weekdays and weekends). Participants received basic guidance in operating and caring for the machines, using the Windows 95 operating system, working with applications software, and connecting to the Internet. Parental attendance: 100 percent.

Teachers' laptops are more fully configured, capable of functioning much like mini-servers within their classrooms. Teachers can, for example, disable spell-checking tools, calculators, or email functions on student machines—for an entire class or for individual students. Their training, conducted at the school by NetSchools staff, was extensive—between 55 and 100 hours per teacher, about half of it before the new school year began. In addition to learning how to use the new equipment, the teachers worked on matching newly abundant Internet resources to Georgia Quality Core Curriculum objectives.

Since the computers have been in use for only a few months, it's too soon to speculate whether they'll have a positive impact on student scores on standardized tests. Other indicators are positive, however. According to Smith, average daily attendance improved for all middle school grades in the first half of the 1998–99 school year, compared with the same period the previous year. So did the percentage of students on time for classes. Disciplinary referrals to the principal's office are running about half of what they were last year. (Apparently, possible loss of Internet access is a serious deterrent to misbehavior.)

The Towns County schools were already good. The middle school won statewide awards in both 1996 and 1998. Smith mentions a recent study that ranked Georgia's approximately 350 middle schools based on eighth-grade test scores. The Hiawassee school was among those tied for fourth place.

"The computers are great, but they're not a cure-all," Smith cautions. "That needs to be emphasized or people might think that you could get rid of teachers and buy computers. You need the personal touch for teaching, and, more important, you need the role models."

Far from feeling threatened, Towns County teachers are enthusiastic about the new options the computers give them. The machines make administrative chores easier, of course. Teachers exchange email with both students and parents. More significantly, teachers mention pluses like student willingness to revise papers more carefully (thanks to word processing) and the ability to introduce students faster to advanced mathematics (thanks to graphing software). They say these advantages are especially pronounced for students who previously resisted the tedium of detail work.

"It's opened up a lot of doors," says Julie Thompson, who teaches reading and English. A previous arrangement—a few computers in the library—made scheduling access for research projects a major chore. "Now every student has their own library," she says. "We can do more projects. And they seem to enjoy working on them more."

"I had a painting of an Egyptian mural," says Heather Marshall, who teaches both math and English. "I had them pretend that they were archeologists and had just found it. Their first trip [on the Web] was to Cairo, Egypt. They found a Web site where they could translate [hieroglyphics] from English to the characters. Any time you can add the element of fun, you're going to have gains in the curriculum."

In conversations with students and parents, only one major complaint emerges: the number of users trying to connect to the school's lines can make dial-up access from home tedious and time-consuming. Several middle schoolers also complained about older siblings spending too much time on the phone, which restricted their own Internet access time. Other comments are glowing.

"I used to watch TV a lot," says Jeff Arrington, a seventh-grader, "but now I only watch 30 minutes a day." How has he used the Web lately? "I did a report on Julius Caesar." Why didn't he use the school library? "I went to the library one day, and they didn't have anything that was in."

Extending the School Day

More time spent on homework, less time spent watching television—several students mention this.

"By providing them with a laptop computer," Smith sums up. "We've effectively extended their school day without the demands on the school system."

He adds that the school is in the process of putting up a Web site that will enable parents to check the school calendar, school closings and delays due to weather, and, potentially, homework—using either their own computers or those issued to their children.

John Casbarro, who owns a grocery and grill in Hiawassee, thinks the whole program is "fabulous." He's delighted that his son, a good student who's interested in music and the arts, now has so many resources at his fingertips.

"When we went to the classes [for parents]," Casbarro says, "there was a whole bunch of people who'd never had anything to do with computers. And they were as excited about it as I was myself. They knew their kids would have an opportunity they never had."

Teachers talk about "a library for every child." Smith, an administrator, mentions extending the school day at minimal cost. A parent talks about new opportunities. These are all variations on the same theme—the unprecedented range of resources that easy access to the Internet brings to education, even in rural areas.

Go back to watching Bell's social studies class, and you sense that you're actually seeing how the promise of computers in the classroom is likely to materialize. The computers are by no means the center of attention—far less so, in fact, than they are in classes where several students are huddled around large desktops off to one side of the room. Once you get used to so many little silver and blue boxes open at once, you pay only slightly more attention to them than you would to open workbooks.

David Padgett is one of several students in Bell's class who hasn't raised his hand yet. But he's ready if called on with a report on the safety of sports utility vehicles. Until the beginning of this school term, he had no Internet access at home, but he now says he's online two or three hours, most days.

"I like computers more than I do TV," Padgett says. He grins as he sums up neatly what the Internet offers Appalachian schools. "There's a lot more channels."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.