Our DFHS Story: The 1:1 Chromebook Program (#IBCHI2015)

One thing that I love to talk about is the history of our school. Since my first day as the principal of DFHS on July 15, 2011, I have been honored to be part of a wonderful “story” that has included so many milestones, changes, and accomplishments for our school. I share our “DFHS Story” with our faculty at the beginning and end of every school year. I do this so that our veteran teachers can be reminded of the wonderful work that they have been part of, and so our newer teachers can better understand the context of our current work and initiatives. History always informs our thinking, and it’s important that people recognize that our work today will also inform the work of future generations of DFHS teachers and students long after we are gone.

This blog, of course, is also part of that history, and tells part of what is our “Dobbs Ferry Story.” On Tuesday, I welcomed our faculty back “virtually” with an opening meeting that was held via Google Meet. As I sat in my office, I saw the faces of our faculty and staff in small boxes on my computer screen. Some were sitting in their classrooms, and others were in their homes. As I walked them through the presentation, I came to our familiar “DFHS: Our Story” slides, and asked them to take a moment to read through the list of our instructional journey as a school over the past ten years. From UBD to MYP, from the expansion of our IB DP to our long standing belief that a 1:1 technology program, when implemented properly, can truly enhance teaching and learning. It was this latter point that I emphasized, and reminded our staff of a time when we were pioneers with regard to 1:1 learning, and how the work that we began all the way back in 2013 has prepared us to once again lead the way as we now temporarily shift our instruction to a remote platform as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With a cup of coffee in hand this morning, I took a look at some of the older blog posts that I’ve written over the years. I do this from time to time, and love to reflect on all that has happened for the same reason that I share these sentiments with our faculty each year. When scrolling, I came across a piece that I wrote in the summer of 2015 when we presented at the IB Conference of the Americas in Chicago (#IBCHI2015) on our new “cutting edge” 1:1 Chromebook program at DFHS. I remember our school being so ahead of the curve with this work, and our session quickly filled up as educators from all districts listened to our every word, took notes, asked questions, and prepared to take their findings back to their schools with hope and excitement. At DFHS, we were “all in” with the 1:1 Chromebook program at that point, we had just finished our third year, and I was also evaluating our program as the focus for my dissertation. The post that I wrote at the time is below, and it’s pretty cool to look at now because so many of the issues that we dealt with at the time are either irrelevant now or, in some ways, more pressing than ever.

The blog post starts with an opening sub-heading that asks, “Why Chromebooks?” and then shifts to a section on the academic skills that can be developed as result of a 1:1 program. At the time, some were skeptical about the idea of a 1:1 program, and thought that it was just another “thing” that looked good for administrators but would really have no impact on teaching and learning. Given that, a clear justification was needed in terms of academics, so in that section I talked about the CCSS (remember those?), and important skills like written communication, data analysis, and digital citizenship. These are all still so important, and so much of what I wrote at that time still rings true. However, what I never expected, and certainly didn’t list as a justification for a 1:1 program, was that five years later we would be in the midst of a global pandemic, that schools would be closed, and that instruction would be delivered using the very devices that DFHS was promoting all the back in 2013.

As we now embark on the next chapter of our story, “remote learning at DFHS,” I am fully confident that our years of work have prepared us for this moment. In ways it’s exciting, in others it’s both sad and terrifying. If there’s a lesson to be learned for schools throughout all of this, however, it’s that pushing the instructional agenda when times are “good” will better prepare everyone for when times are more challenging. Such is the case for us with regard to remote learning. We embraced this challenge years ago not knowing where the road was leading. Now that we are faced with the monumental task of essentially redesigning and reshaping all aspects of teaching and learning, both our teachers and students are ready because we have essentially been preparing for this moment for years. Will there be bumps along the way? Absolutely. Can remote learning ever replace the richness of in-person learning? Absolutely not. However, technology will provide us with the bridge, and this blog will continue to be used to share our work as we now prepare for this next chapter.

A look back at where we were on July 15, 2015

I’ve written numerous posts on the 1:1 Chromebook program at Dobbs Ferry High School over the past two years while continuing to evaluate the program for the dissertation that I plan (hope!) to finally defend this fall. I am also looking forward to sharing our school’s 1:1 story at the upcoming IB Conference of the Americas (#IBCHI2015) along with @meghalberg and @careim2. In preparation for our upcoming presentation, I have combined some of the “big ideas” from my previous posts and have added some additional insight based on my recent research. Here are the highlights…

Why Chromebooks?

  1. Practical Considerations: At first glance, the Chromebook has the look of a standard laptop. It has a 12.1-inch screen, a traditional keyboard, and opens and closes in the same way. But that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. The “web-based” Chromebook is extraordinarily light due to the absence of a standard hard drive and is also sleek in nature. This is critical for high school students who are already overwhelmed with large over-sized textbooks and book bags that weigh more than they do. In addition, the Chromebook is inexpensive as compared to even the most modest laptops that are on the market.
  2. Academic Considerations: While many of our students noted the value and benefits of using iPads as a primary device, they also noted that there is a connotation of “play” that is associated with iPads due to the thousands of non-educational apps that are available. Conversely, the Chromebook provides easy access to Google Drive and the growing number of educational apps that teachers and students are now using on a daily basis. In addition, the traditional keyboard makes much better sense than a touchpad for high school students who use the device for note-taking, paper writing, and overall collaboration.
  3. Access to Google Drive: Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Chromebook is the ease in which students can access the internet and, more importantly, Google Drive. Though still in its early stages, Google Drive has already changed the way that we think about “sharing” and is now on the cusp of changing the way that we think about teaching and learning. Through the various Google Apps for Education that are available in Drive, teachers and students can collaborate in “real time” on various projects and classroom assignments. This feature not only challenges all traditional thinking of assessing student understanding, but also how we provide ongoing feedback to students beyond the “brick and mortar” classroom.
  4. “The Cloud”: This once seemingly abstract concept has now singlehandedly changed the way that we think about accessing, saving, and sharing information. In the old days, files and documents were saved to a hard drive on a local computer or a laptop. Transferring or sharing of these files would require that we email them to another person (or ourselves) or save them to an easy-to-lose flashdrive. No more. By saving all information to “the cloud,” all files can be easily accessed on any device wherever there is internet access. With this concept in mind, the Chromebook was designed to allow users to quickly and easily access the web and their important files. Essentially, the files are available wherever you go. This is a critical for students as they can now access all documents from home or in school (or anywhere) while enjoying a virtually limitless amount of storage space.
  5. The CCSS: All of the talk these days seems to be around the new CCSS and the degree to which schools across the nation have made “the shift.” Among the many “college and career readiness” targets that our outlined in the CCSS, there is a shared expectation that students will use technology to produce, publish, interact, collaborate, and evaluate different forms of digital media. To further this point, the NCTM remarked that “unless technology is woven throughout these standards, the credibility of any claim that they will better prepare students in the 21st century is diminished.” Given these demands and expectations, the Chromebook provides easy access to databases, journal abstracts/articles via the “research tool,” and a variety of additional educational apps that are designed to enhance understanding and overall capability.

What skills have students gained as a result of the 1:1 Chromebook program?

  1. Written Communication: Teachers in all disciplines noted writing as the skill that has been most directly impacted by the 1:1 Chromebook initiative. By sharing documents both with peers and their teachers, students are now able to engage in the writing process like never before. Through formal assignments like the humanities interdisciplinary research paper (@MikeMeagh) and informal assignments such as shared journal entries (@Mrs_Fahy), students collaborate with one or more co-writers in real time through each phase of the writing process. In addition, Chromebooks allow teachers to provide ongoing feedback and targeted instruction by using the revision history feature and identifying the specific strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. In that sense, Chromebooks provide teachers with a practical tool for differentiation so that they may best meet the needs of all students.
  2. Accessing and Analyzing Information: The ease at which our 1:1 initiative has enabled students to access an unlimited amount of information on any topic via the internet has completely transformed teaching and learning in all disciplines. Teachers now play the role of facilitator on a more frequent basis while students are being encouraged to take ownership of their learning as they decipher between credible and non-credible sources on the internet. As an example, @AdamoBiology regularly has his students use the “research tool” in Google Docs to compare, contrast, and analyze abstracts, journal articles, and research studies that are available in various databases. Activities of this nature are not only in-line with both the Common Core and IB Learning Standards, but also help students to develop skills in research, evaluation, critical thinking, reading, curiosity, and self-direction.
  3. Data Analysis: In addition to the analytical skills that are developed through the activities noted above, the Chromebooks have provided our students with a new way to analyze and graphically represent numerical data through applications such as Google Spreadsheet. For example, @ANewhouse6 requires that all students share their Google “Sheet” with all of the groups in the class so that they can analyze both the validity and reliability of the data collected as well as the process and procedure that the students used to conduct their investigations. Furthermore, this feature makes it possible for students to receive instant feedback on their lab results, graphs, charts, and data analysis from both the teacher and other members of the class. As an extension, students have the ability to present their data through applications such as Google Slides. Given that, additional skills that are directly connected to data analysis include communication, organization, collaboration, and critical thinking.
  4. Initiative & Self-Direction: @sarahhmstern noted that the increased level of access to the internet has shifted the mindset of some students from feelings of  “helplessness” that come as a result of the limitations of textbooks to an understanding that all information is in fact attainable if the the proper search is conducted. This realization is especially critical when students are working independently outside of school. Similarly, teachers such as @ms_sardinia, @MicheleIrvine1, and @MegHalberg provide access to a variety of apps and websites that allow students to take control of their learning based on their specific strengths, weaknesses, and areas of interest. This includes websites such as Khan Academy and a library of Google Apps for Education.
  5. Digital Citizenship: While not a “skill” in the traditional sense, digital citizenship is critical for success in all academic classes as well as all “real world” endeavors. From an accountability perspective, students are responsible for taking care of their devices while having it in school with them each day. Furthermore, @addonam noted the importance of internet etiquette and digital citizenship with respect to searching for information and interacting with all people in a virtual setting. In that sense, the benefits for 9th graders go far beyond the classroom and indirectly connect to the development of other crucial skills, including organization, self-direction, and of course responsibility.

What are some of the issues that still need to be resolved?

  1. Instructional: Inconsistent use among teachers. While all teachers utilize Chromebooks, the degree to which they do so depends on the subject and the nature of the culminating final exam (state or local) that they are required to administer. In courses such as English, World Language, and ELL that do not end with a state exam, teachers feel a greater sense of freedom and take more risks with regard to integrating technology. Conversely, teachers in math emphasized that the end year NYS Regents exam requires “pen to paper skills” that cannot be developed via a Chromebook. Solution: Ongoing differentiated professional development that is subject specific needs to be provided. PD must always focus on the ways in which technology (and the 1:1) can enhance teaching and learning within the content areas while recognizing the specific obstacles that might exist.
  2. Instructional: Accommodating students who either forget their device at home or have a broken device. Solution: There is no perfect solution to this inevitable issue. The first and easiest solution is to have “extra” devices on hand for such situations (particularly students with broken devices). If this is not possible, teachers can find opportunities to either pair students or, if possible, allow students to access Google Drive via their phones.
  3. Instructional: Monitoring student use to ensure that all students are on task during class. Solution: In addition to the internal features in Google Drive that allow teachers to monitor student progress, our teachers noted that viewing student screens from afar is much easier with the HP Chromebook than it is with the Samsung device. We made the switch from Samsung to HP this year. There’s also a great deal to be said about the importance of teaching digital citizenship and responsible use. See “Why BYOD” (12/12/13).
  4. Infrastructure: As more students use their devices as a result of our one-to-one (grades 9-11) and/or BYOD (grade 12) initiatives, our WiFi has started to become overrun causing the internet (and downloading) to move much slower. Solution: Increase bandwidth and access points. In many ways this is still a work in progress for us as we determine the appropriate amount of bandwidth to support such a high level of activity. On our campus (MS/HS), we can have as many as 1300 devices connecting to the network at one time. Given that, we have moved from 40 MHz to 100 MHz and have installed 115 access points throughout the district. Despite these changes we still have instances when the internet moves slowly so it something that we continue to evaluate.
  5. Infrastructure: The battery often drains before the of the end of the day even if the devices are fully charged overnight. Solution: We are finding that some of the biggest battery “drains” occur during student “free” periods (lunch, etc.) when they access gaming and movie sites. Speaking to students about this issue is key and, if necessary, blocking sites as needed. In addition, charging stations need to be provided throughout the building and all student chargers should be labeled (name/grade level) so that students can use their chargers while at school.

For more information, we invite you to attend our session at 11:15 on Saturday, July 25 in the “Missouri” room!


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