In December Apple invited me to an 1:1 school computing "event" at Holland Christian High School in Holland, Michigan. I was initially a bit reluctant, Apple - in my "educational demonstration experience" - being one of those "hard sell" kind of firms which tolerates little dissent, and tends to make fun of you if you suggest alternatives to their "cool," but I went anyway. Doughnuts and coffee were promised, it wasn't far, and I wanted to meet Twitterpal @mrlosik who would be attending. Plus, Holland Christian interested me. In my work with students on Assistive Technology evals, few schools had been anywhere near as willing to try new things, to give "disabled" students new opportunities, or to be less "rule bound."
Three years ago when I recommended Google Calendar with mobile phone alerts to keep ADHD students on task, Holland Christian was the only area high school to go with the plan - the others - the public high schools - just said, "we don't allow phones."
Anyway, I went. @endaguinan warned me from his socialist vacation home in north London that Apple reps would probably use the word "funnest" and I promised that if that happened, I'd leave and head for the pub to work. But I went, dodging a dangerously icy morning on the roads and on the school's outdoor paths. And when I walked in, I immediately began to be happy to be there. The school had physically been rebuilt in the past year, and now I entered a wide carpeted "Main Street" area filled with comfortable chairs, and beginning with a coffee shop at the near end and a glass walled library adjoining that, and ending with an open cafeteria at the far end, with a high tech auditorium in the center. Huge flat panel displays showed students at work throughout. Students moved through talking and chatting, but the noise control of the architecture turned it into a pleasant rumble. There were no big rules posted. "Adults" were there but not obviously "supervising."
Holland Christian decided a few years ago to become a 1:1 school. That alone is a huge step, but they realized that changing student tools was just one part of rethinking. And while they were rethinking, they realized that they needed to rebuild and reorganize - that new tools would only be meaningful if the educational environment altered in ways that let the tools really change things. So, after a brief and meaningless Apple introduction our day began as we listened to Glenn Vos, the school superintendent. Glenn didn't talk about Apple, or even 1:1 so much. He talked about rebuilding classrooms so there was no "front" anymore. He talked about wide hallways where students could gather. He talked about attendance policies which allowed students to sign into classes from elsewhere in the building if that made them more comfortable. He talked about multiple projection screens in every classroom to break "single focus learning." He talked about dropping text books for authentic materials and the acceptance of multiple - and student chosen - ways of demonstrating knowledge. He even talked about having big windows in classrooms both to the outside and the school corridors - "We're not hiding from the world or hiding the world from our students" he told us.
And then we listened to teachers and students, we wandered the building, and we saw. In newly built additions classroom doors were centered on one wall, projectors, aimed from the middle of the ceiling, pointed to two corners. Window walls opened outside, big windows allowed views to/from the halls. In most rooms the two projectors were in use, showing different things. In most rooms, students gathered in clusters, often passing tablet boards around.
Students described open-ended projects they worked on. Teachers described learning to trust student learning. Voss himself told me of needing to change staff thinking. "I wanted the library completely open," he said, "the librarian freaked out, so we put these pure glass walls up. She said, "they'll steal the books." I said, "Students will steal books! If they do that I'll buy you new ones." Then he said, "The books are decoration now, the kids all download digital versions of what they need."
All in all what I saw was a 1:1 initiative that had been shaped by a commitment to rethinking school, and centering the form of school on what students need now - collaboration, access to and effective use of global information, trust in students, belief in leveraging the world of today rather than avoiding it, and universal design.
"Kids don't need a lot of special services," one staffer told me when I asked about special needs. "If they need stuff added to their computers, they find it and add it or we help them. If they have to do things differently, well, everybody does stuff differently. It doesn't matter."
The Apple stuff in the building was fine. The computers were cool. But there was nothing a school couldn't do with much cheaper Windows or even Linux laptops. They used free Open Office and many free webware programs. "There are ads there," a visitor commented about a class blog. "Yes," the teacher said, "we realize that our kids do see advertising in their lives, it's no big deal." This was no cost-be-damned private school experience. It was reasonable, it was logical, and it was technology chosen for education, not technology chosen for technology.
Maybe most importantly, they had tested and considered, and are continuing to do that. "Why no IWB's?" they were asked. "We tested them in a few classrooms," we were told. "They were expensive, they didn't seem to get used very interactively. We saw better stuff with two projectors and the wireless tablet controls." "What if mobile phones become dominant," I asked, "and laptops get outdated?" "The equipment really isn't important," was the answer, "we've learned to embrace the student control and interaction, and we'll keep doing that."
The day ended with a bizarre Apple rep presentation in which they suggested military school-like quizzing of students on the "ten reasons we have gone one to one." (No, I'm not kidding - Apple corporate culture has flipped since 1984) "We stop them in the halls in this one school and they can recite them all!" But that was just a strange addendum.
What I had seen that day in December was a school where rethinking was embraced, and it was wonderful to see.
- Ira Socol