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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

Computers in the mist: The wireless writing project

by Al Wilson

What do 1,100 computers, a researcher, and Grade 6 and 7 students have in common? They all make up the Wireless Writing Project, a brave and cutting-edge approach in Peace River North. From a humble beginning three years ago of two classrooms, to five classrooms last year, and now to a district-wide implementation, the project has made a major impact at the intermediate level.

The question driving the project is Does one-to-one computer technology improve student writing achievement? The first year supplied tentative data that led to a wider scope the second year. From there, the growing databank gave the district the incentive to supply each Grade 6 and 7 student with a laptop computer. The students were issued backpacks and adapters, so they could take their machines home.

The computers have become part of the students’ regular school equipment. And their "ownership" is high indeed. They can change the background picture on the computer as well as customize many other applications. Gavin, a student at Bert Ambrose School, says it feels more like the machine is "his" and it is a fun part of having the laptop.

The project’s data is overseen by Dr. Sharon Jeroski, of Horizon Research, author of the Provincial Performance Standards, with the skills monitored by collecting writing samples. Now that the project has been operating for three years, one sample is taken from the students in May and scored against the performance standards for the grade. A statistically significant number of students scored into the "exceeding expectations" category and the results are following the same pattern annually. The numbers substantiate what teachers know: Given the access to technology, young students take up the challenge and perform marvellously.

Computers can change student thinking as well. No longer are students expecting the teacher to be the "sage on the stage." After a lesson, a student approached me with his laptop under his arm and said, "I know the answer."

Looking up, I replied, "Cool! What is it?"

"I don’t know yet, but the answer is in here," he answered patting his laptop.

Attitudes are improving as well as skills. Kids are finding that writing can be enjoyable at school and at home. Cody, a Grade 6 student, wrote a story as a gift for his ailing grandfather. Harlee, also in Grade 6, created a slide-show presentation as part of an anniversary celebration for her grandparents. Grade 7 student Kai has submitted a short story for publication. These are just a few examples of what some students at Alwin Holland Elementary School have done independently with their laptops. They have made cartoon characters and comic strips. Creating flowcharts and research reports, students gain confidence and skills each time they work with their machines.

Ongoing professional development is an integral part of the wireless writing, with monthly group discussions, idea and technology sharing, and new ways to integrate the machines. No district helping teachers nor a large district technology staff support the project. The project runs on a low budget that is classroom based.

The children have adapted to the responsibility as well as the technology. Not a single machine

has been lost to theft or vandalism. The students look after the laptops as if they were their own. And the speed with which the students discover new things on the machines is amazing. I regularly learn from the students, but then again, I am vastly outnumbered. If you truly want a teaching adventure, give laptops to 30 11-year-olds, and tell them to explore.

Al Wilson teaches at Alwin Holland Elementary School, Fort St John.

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