Tampa Prep has been using state-of-the-art Active Learning Environment (or “ALE”) classrooms for five years. Each classroom has mobile furniture, two walls covered with dry erase presentation material and an interactive display mounted above them, one wall with a mounted flat panel, and a teacher voice-amplifying system. In addition, every student brings an iPad to school and every teacher uses both an iPad and a MacBook Pro for instruction. These technologies work together so seamlessly they have become a natural part of the learning environment.
The ALEs are also device-agnostic so it’s easy to introduce students to new technology. For example, we set up a mobile virtual-reality station to let students and teachers test drive our VR offerings. One student wears a VR headset, which is connected to the other students’ displays. As the video plays, the entire class can participate in the experience.
The ALEs have helped drive more student-driven learning. For instance, in math classes, instead of working on problems individually, students break into small groups to solve math problems collaboratively on their iPads then wirelessly broadcast their answers to the displays for discussion. Many high school classes use the Harkness Method, a learning model where students sit in an oval configuration and discuss ideas with minimal teacher intervention. During discussions, students can refer to a resource on his or her iPad and wirelessly broadcast it to the displays for all students to reference.
We have learned many lessons in the five years since we launched the ALEs. Here are three strategies we implement to make sure student-led instruction works.
Create authentic learning opportunities. Project-based learning challenges students to step out of their comfort zone of just absorbing information and challenges them to creatively demonstrate their knowledge. For example, each high school junior completes a project called “The 3-Pound Project.” Students choose a topic they want explore and spend the entire semester learning about it. They set a timeline, create a presentation with a visual component — such as a video or a game — and then present it to parents and teachers. The project makes students take ownership of their learning. They must stay on task to succeed, which is what they will need to do in college.
Offer freedom with prudent checks and balances. All students must have the Google Apps for Education ecosystem and the Apple Pages, Numbers and Keynote programs on their devices to facilitate their work at our school. Students can download the Epson iProjection App and teachers also use the Apple Classroom app. Both collaboration software products enable teachers to push resources to students’ devices, which facilitates a quick workflow during class. Students can also broadcast their screens to the class displays, which enables comparative work and class discussions. The tools let teachers see a thumbnail of what each student is viewing on their device to ensure they are on task during class.
As a college preparatory school, we would be doing a disservice to students by putting too many restrictions on devices; in college, they will be responsible for their devices and their behavior on them. These tools help us balance freedom with reasonable accountability.
Offer tech support and prioritize digital citizenship. When sixth-graders come to Tampa Prep, they rarely have trouble assimilating to the digital workflow because they have grown up with these tools and it’s intuitive for them. However, we do post many video tutorials on our website and have a student technology liaison dedicated to answering questions and providing tech support for students and families.
We also don’t have a formal class to teach students about digital citizenship. Instead, we reiterate it on an on-going basis. At the beginning of the year, we host an hour-long presentation about being responsible and safe on the internet. We also have students and their advisors discuss best practices about responsible technology use throughout the year during their advisory meetings. It’s engrained into our everyday operations, which we found was better for our school culture.
Chad Lewis is the director of technology at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa, FL. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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