Educators praise laptop use

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCKSt. Thomas More Catholic High School  teacher Doug Taylor conducts a European history class recently at the Lafayette school. Students are using laptop computers in the place of textbooks at the school.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCKSt. Thomas More Catholic High School teacher Doug Taylor conducts a European history class recently at the Lafayette school. Students are using laptop computers in the place of textbooks at the school.

By Marsha Sills

Last school year, St. Thomas More Catholic High School abandoned textbook-based learning and gave each student a laptop tablet that serves as textbook, Trapper Keeper and a link to learning from anywhere.

Audrey Menard, the school’s principal, said the transition to a laptop campus was necessary to prepare students with the 21st-century skills they will need to succeed in college and the workplace.

“In 20th-century education, we did the best we could do with textbooks in the curriculum because that’s all we had,” Menard said. “In the 21st century, we’re able to leverage technology to boost up what we’re doing in the classroom.”

Debates with students across the country, access to databases and real-time feedback from teachers are just some of the experiences the new technology has afforded students, Menard said.

“Textbooks are boring, biased and incorrect. Our science textbooks still say Pluto is a planet,” she said. “With laptops, we have the Library of Congress in students’ hands. They can compare and contrast different perspectives and come up with their own perspective, rather than one that’s laid out for them.”

Junior Samuel Houston said since the implementation of the new technology, his classroom experience is more “hands-on” with teachers using software to give notes and real-time feedback.

“It’s also easier to stay organized,” he said. “It’s all in your notebook. It’s easier to make notes typing rather than writing and stopping every few minutes to ask what she said again.”

On a recent visit to the school, a whiteboard at the front of the room displayed history teacher Jill Ardoin’s lesson on the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854. The same bulleted points in her presentation could be seen on students’ laptop screens. As she lectured, some students typed notes in a program or annotated directly into the lesson pages. A few students rotated their laptop monitor to transform their devices into a tablet and took notes the “old-fashioned” way — using a stylus to jot down notes electronically.

Teachers use Moodle, a classroom management program, where students access assignments, teacher notes and presentations. Senior Brittany Hanks said some teachers record lessons or allow students to audio record lessons to go back and listen as they need or take notes at home.

Sandra LaGrange, the school’s technology integration specialist, said teachers can annotate in students’ assignments and provide more timely feedback on their work.

Teachers can schedule professional development time daily with LaGrange. “It’s not about the toy or tool; it’s about making instruction meaningful,” she said.

Kelley Leger, the school’s director of academics and its first curriculum integration specialist, said teachers are using the technology to help students better prepare for the next day’s lesson, as well, and eliminating the common excuses for undone homework.

“They’re getting the lecture at home so the teacher can hit the high notes in class and pinpoint students’ questions,” Leger said. “It creates a more hands-on and interactive classroom.”

The school’s help desk is staffed by students who help service the campus’ 3,150 computers. Students who have issues with their devices can turn them in to the help desk and be assigned “loaner” laptops until their computers are fixed. The school owns the technology and students keep the tablets during their time at St. Thomas More, where part of the tuition helps defray the cost, Menard said.

Factoring in laptop and software purchases, other equipment and the infrastructure needed to make the initiative work, Menard estimated the school invested about $4 million.

The school has a one gigabit per second fiber optic connection to the LUS Fiber infrastructure, which provides Internet connectivity at 100 times faster than the typical broadband connection.

“We’re the first school with a one gig pipeline, so there’s no problem streaming,” Menard said.

Representatives from schools across the country and the state have visited the school to learn how to replicate its program on their campuses, said Menard, who advised them to invest money in technology and infrastructure that will carry them into the future.