Friday, May 23, 2008

X's & O's for the OLPC XO - A View from the Classroom

As my colleague and I were debriefing on our visit to Kappa IV middle school in Central Harlem where we saw a class in action using the OLPC XO laptop, she said, “Wow! These kids really had the freedom to learn.” I answered, “That’s the whole point isn’t it?” As what she said, sunk in I said, "Wait. Isn’t that the name of a laptop program? I think it is.” I was right. Freedom to Learn is Michigan’s laptop program. The OLPC sure brought the concept to life. Many of my grown up colleagues have tested XO devices with mixed reactions, but most have yet to see them being used by a class full of students. Read on to find out how the XOs gave this class the freedom to learn.

Background
Teaching Matters is piloting a set of OLPC laptops in a middle school in Harlem to determine if the laptop will provide the access necessary to take advantage of the programs they offer to support technology-rich learning environments. The first program they are testing is Writing Matters which is designed to enhance literacy instruction. Though this is how the laptops made their way to the school, the lesson I observed was an original from the teacher and not a part of the TMI program.

Entering The Class
I was in the class prior to the students which allowed me to see how they interact with their laptops at the top of the class. The first thing I look to see is if the laptops are a "learning tool" or a “production.” What I mean is that in some 1:1 environments the amount of time it takes for students and the teacher to get ready for learning is highly disruptive to the learning environment…it is not seamlessly integrated as notebooks and textbooks are. In other words, it's not really part of instruction. This is a reason some teachers and administrators are turned off by technology.

Before the students had arrived, one disappointing issue we noticed was that the laptop power chargers did not fit in laptop carts. That’s an issue for sure. The plugs are too big. As a result there were surge protectors and plugs snarled outside the cart. Not good. We’ll have to determine a solution for that.

The snarled cords had no effect on the students though. As they entered the room students went to the laptop cart got their device and had a seat. Two students headed directly to the front of the room pulled the SMART Board to the center of the class and connected the instructor laptop and projector. This was completed in about a minute. Within a couple minutes everyone was at their seat and the class began with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping chant. In less than five minutes of when the first student entered the room all eyes were at the front of the room and instruction began on a very upbeat.

Instruction
Mr. Almanzar began his mini lesson with an overview of what the class had learned so far about writing plays. They went over the seven essential elements to consider when writing play direction which included things such as indicating motion and emotion. The students were given a sample passage and were asked to copy the passage and infuse some of the appropriate seven direction elements into their work. After that, groups of three were to act out their plays by taping themselves with the infused direction (i.e. trembled, happily, with trepadation), then they watched their video to see if they brought these elements to life.

While Mr. Almanzar was speaking all laptops were closed and the students were eagerly listening and sharing insights as appropriate. The students were really engaged in what he had to say, excited to know what they were about to be able to start doing. When Mr. Almanzar was done, he said, “Okay, are you ready to start playing???” The students anxiously opened their laptops and got to work. I found myself wondering if Mr. Almanzar should have said, “Are you ready to start playing?" This is school work after all. I was trying to reflect on why this was an issue to me and it hit me. Back in the NYC BOE days when Project Smart (4 computers in a classroom) was launched, many teachers saw computers just as a reward and sent “the good” students to “play computer.” They were not seen as part of instruction. In Mr. Almanzar’s class, learning had become playing and the kids couldn’t wait to get started.

Work time
The students got to work right away. I’m a great eavesdropper and I couldn’t find a single group or student doing anything other than the task at hand. The students copied Mr. Almanzar’s dialogue from the board onto paper and then were to begin editing their work to infuse the seven elements.

It took about 15 minutes for the students to copy the dialogue and infuse elements. One thing I would have done differently is avoid having students copy work off the board and onto paper. There are two reasons for this. One is about efficiency. Copying took the kids about ten minutes and could have been accomplished by having them download the dialogue off the internet or through passing some usb drives around the room. If this was a routine they were used to, it could have been done non-disruptively during the lesson. The second part is that I would have instructed students to type directly on their laptops. Some students thought to do this, but I would make it explicit. This then would serve as a real-looking script they could edit and revise. Taking this another step, I may have used a Google Collaborative document set up in advance for each group that they could have collaboratively revised and had available to them. This way download wouldn’t even be necessary.

Still it was a great lesson and the kids were excited for the good stuff. They infused the elements and were ready to test out their screen directions and see what happens when they taped themselves acting out what they wrote. Each group had three laptops. In some groups they had used one laptop as the teleprompter for their acting. In other groups they set up all three laptops taping from different angles. One group had a violinist who played music to accompany the work.

It was loud and a bit difficult to hear each piece, but the learning absolutely occurred and the kids were excited about what they saw. Many adults who’ve seen the XOs complain about video quality. This was besides the point. The tool did the job of capturing the kids and allowing them to view and reflect upon their work. They weren’t concerned about a high-quality technical production.

Conferring
Mr. Almanzar went to each group of students and conferred with them on the elements they selected to infuse into their scene and how they could bring this to life on video. The students were excited to get his feedback and recommendations and show him what they had discovered when they tried different strategies.

Mid Workshop Teaching Point
Mr. Almanzar asked students to watch their videos and let that influence how they would revise their scripts to capture the action and direction more accurately and then take 2. The kids were excited to watch and revise. Imagine that? Kids excited to revise. Impressive.

Work Time Continued
The students all watched their videos, reflected on their work and revised their writing. Students started noticing the techniques other groups were using and incorporating those ideas i.e. multiple laptops, teleprompters.

Work Time Noticings

  • Every laptop has a different color “X” and “O”. This is how class sets come. Everyone is different. When students have their laptops on they can look at a view where they see every other student in the class by the color of their XO and they can click on the student to see their name and do other things like share documents and chat.
  • The file storage system is interesting and very simple for the students. They can view file by file type i.e. writing document, video, etc. and also by when it was saved i.e. today, past few days, past week, past month, past year. The laptop also indicates their name on the file (i.e. by Lisa Nielsen) This becomes important when students are sharing documents. I also recommend Google Docs and Wikispaces for file storage when applicable so as not to use limited file space on the device. See how this is done at CIS 339 in NYC for insight into how that would work.
  • The laptops connect to the internet slowly, but easily at school. The ease of connection was due to some heavy lifting from Teaching Matters and the NYC DOE's DIIT Department upfront which you can read about in their blog in entries like this.
  • The swivel screen allows students to easily share their work with their peers and they're excited to do so.
  • Students are excited they get to use the devices at home. More on that below.
  • There is no projector port on the devices. They get a big thumbs down from me for this. One of the strategies we love teaching is that every student is a teacher and should be proudly projecting, teaching and celebrating their work at the front of the class. I hope the design on this changes or that we get usb projectors. This is an issue.

Full Disclosure
My colleague and I couldn’t just watch what was going on. We couldn’t help it. We wanted to be a part of the action. We joined a group and played...errrr worked with them to act out the play full with stage direction. It was fun!!!

Share
At the conclusion of the lesson Mr. Almanzar brought a group up for the class to watch together and he lead them through how to thoughtfully watch their dramatization and think about how the seven elements were incorporated and consider what could be revised. The students learned to critically look at their work and collaboratively reflect on how to strengthen it.

Ending Class
Mr. Almanzar matter of factly said, okay table 1 and 2. Table 3, 4. etc…Within minutes the kids were packed up and out the door.

Taking Devices Home
In my experience, one-to-one can not fully reach potential success without enabling students to take devices home. Since this is the student’s digital assistant, they need the device to access work, retrieve information and connect to others. The low cost of these laptops (under $300 makes this less of an issue. I spoke to students about how they feel about taking the laptops home and boy were they excited! They told me their parents and guardians were so impressed with the work they were doing and their siblings were VERY jealous. However, one of the great things about this pilot is they have student bloggers, so rather than hear it from me, I’ll share a few excerpts straight from the students. Notice how one student Blogger connects with an educator from Minneapolis (first comment below) to assist with the student’s research on ferrets. How amazing is that???

XO internet search

At first the wireless in the neighborhood did not work. but then i rebooted it and then i got internet. The first time it was not easy because the wireless was not flashing. The second time was easy because i just had to click on another persons. I am going to try to do it at home tonight. I am researching about ferrets.


One Response to “XO internet search”

  1. on February 25, 2008 at 12:17 am1 Mr. Knaus

Hello! I am a teacher in Minneapolis and fan of the XO laptop. I have one that I am using but am hoping for a class set. I’m writing to tell you that I owned a ferret for 6 years before he got very sick. I’d be happy to answer any questions that you might have about living with a ferret or any other ferret questions.

Good luck with your research and your XO!

-Mr. Knaus


XO First Impressions

I was very excited to take my xo laptop home. As soon as I got home, I went to record. I showed my family how to take pictures, record videos, and do more things on the xo as well. I was able to connect to the Internet very easily.

My dad was amazed at how much the little xo could do! I can’t wait to explore more on the xo. -CRA


My feature article is about the potential depressive dangers of video games

Since I have had my XO for the last 4 weeks, I have been able to do a lot of research. I am not able to see the internet all of the time on my XO, but that is o.k. We were told to just keep writing on the XO and save our work. I have taken the xo home with me like my friends. I get to do extra work with it and catch up when i fall behind in class.


4 weeks in counting

Having a xo made me really feel happy because it’s like a little toy but a toy that you helps you get better as a writer and etc. I feel i got a good grade because of the xo it helped me write fast and put me in a position that made me really think of ways of making my feature article better and better every week.

I can’t think of a better note to leave you on then these experts from the students. If you want to read more you can visit what Kappa Students entered on the blog here.

Ponderings

Were there any surprises in what I’ve shared?
What do others think or have they found when using sub laptops?

What do you think of the work as play concept?

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