Immersion Learning, Unplugged

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2004, Vol. 8, No. 1

By Gary Leatherman, Technology Specialist, L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School, St. Paul, MN

At L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion school in St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers make a supreme effort to maintain a “No English” policy in the classroom. However, when I roll our iBook Mobile Lab through the door, the cheers and shouts of, “Hooray! Computers!” are usually allowed, since the teachers are as pleased to see the excitement as the kids are to see the machines (although a “Hourra! Les ordinateurs!” would probably result in an extra credit point or two).

As the technology coordinator for the school, I share in the kids’ enthusiasm for the mobile computer lab. There are many reasons that the rolling iBook lab is ideal in a school setting, and even a few that are unique to immersion programs. From the teachers’ perspective, it’s a way to integrate computer use with the classroom setting, thanks to wireless technology and the LCD projector that comes with each cart. From a maintenance standpoint, my job is easier because of the combination of the Mac OS X operating system and new software that lets me simultaneously set up or update all the laptop systems. And the kids can’t wait to get their hands on the keyboards, whether they’re racing each other in typing drills, researching on the Internet, or creating their first presentations.

The iBook Mobile Lab and I started in the same year (2003), and as such, we both had some adjustments to make. Originally, some of the scripting software (the program that allowed me access to all the computer hard drives at one time) required some up-front extra learning on my part. However, this year’s updated NetRestore software makes setup, organization and maintenance much easier. In fact, all you need to do is to set up a single laptop exactly as you want all of them, with all the software and settings in place, and NetRestore will use your network to synchronize all the cart computers in the exact same fashion. A “disc image,” essentially a replica of all the information, lives on your Mac OS X server so you can automatically update or re-initialize any iBook simply by the press of a key.

Of course, as with a stationary computer lab, there are going to be some challenges. For instance, ideally you would keep all teacher and student files (i.e. Powerpoint presentations or text documents) on the server. However, with up to thirty computers using one wireless connection, the individual laptop speed can suffer when kids are working with particularly large files. We solved this by having the children transfer the files onto their individual hard drives; be sure, however, that the files are transferred back onto the server at the end of classtime to ensure backups. Newer wireless systems are significantly faster than the first generation, and I’m sure that the speed will only increase with every update.

Aside from bringing the computers into the classroom (and eliminating the disruptive process of transferring children from one room to another), teachers also enjoy using the iBook cart because of its flexibility from grade to grade. Younger children get lots of hands-on experience with computers, learning how to properly care for them as well as how to use the software on them; older kids actually use them as tools, just as they will for the rest of their lives, typing reports, creating Powerpoint presentations about countries and their own biographies, and mastering the use of the Internet as an information source. This year, we’ve added Atout Clic, French-based software written to reinforce the basics of grammar and mathematics for grades one through six. And specialized cart accessories are available to add subject-specific capabilities, such as specialized mathematics software or instruments that allow students to collect scientific data directly into their computers (such as digital thermometers).

Macintosh computers have historically been particularly well suited to education, with plenty of software available and an intuitive interface. From a practical standpoint, I appreciate that there’s very little down time for maintenance: the imaging technology lets me manage the entire cart from my base computer system. In fact, thanks to the remote control software, I can rewipe and change everything on all thirty computers in a half a day (compare that to the days of going from computer to computer with a stack of installation discs). And as shrinking school budgets and limited space challenge smaller schools (such as many immersion programs), it just makes sense to bring this virtual computer lab to students, rather than the other way around. And as they pop open their wireless computers on their own desks, seeing the teacher’s screen (set up exactly like theirs) projected on the wall, it’s easy for them to follow along, learn, and develop the skills that will set students on a tech-savvy path that will enhance their education for years to come.


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