The world current high school students will live and work in is significantly different than the worlds their parents and grandparents knew as students.
Just as earlier generations learned to use the tools that defined their professional worlds, today's students should develop skills with current tools while they're developing their critical learning skills and basic body of knowledge.
That's the thinking that principal Richard Jean used when he decided that every student at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. would have a tablet device -- specifically, an iPad -- as part of their required school supplies.
Joe Morano is the school's director of technology. He told me in an interview that that there was a lot of work that had to happen before the tablet program could begin:
Everything was outdated and slow, from network to infrastructure. We were perhaps 15 years behind the times. The principal wanted to improve all the technology.
We went to new laptops and desktops, servers are all new, we installed new layer 2-3 managed switches, fiber connections between switches, we went to a 100 Meg link into the school, and we added WiFi. All this was in preparation for the iPad program.
Jean says that the WiFi went hand-in-hand with the tablet plan to make an effective program:
To have a laptop without WiFi, you basically have a typewriter. The key to knowledge is that it's instant: If a student has to go home to look it up, an opportunity is lost. If they can look it up immediately, they can use it.
Jean and Morano tell me about three major components of the program: the software used with the tablets (and other computing devices), the classroom management aspect, and the wireless network that ties the campus together. Moreno says that a common software suite allows students to work in different locations, collaborate, and turn in work:
Every student has a Google Apps for Education account so they can send themselves files, collaborate with others, or send teachers files through the account. EdLine is another piece of software we use for students and teachers to communicate back and forth as well. The student and teacher are never at a place where they can't exchange files back and forth between one another.
Evernote and Notability are two apps that we use for students to store and move information. Now, with the iCloud, if helps tremendously, as well. This really helps the teachers, so that every lesson is saved.
Classroom management is high on Jean's list of advantages:
The traditional way of displaying things was with a projector or smartboard: The teacher had to be up front to control that. With the iPad and Apple TV, they can wander everywhere around the classroom, and teach from the back of the room so they can see the students' iPads and manage the classroom appropriately.
The student's iPad can also be used to drive the displays -- that's switchable by the teacher. The teacher owns the lesson plan and the data that feeds the lesson.
On campus, everything is tied together through a WiFi mesh-architecture network from Firetide. Both Jean and Moreno emphasize the importance of choosing an integrator who understands the unique challenges of a school campus.
Jean says, "We interviewed a lot of wireless integrators to make sure that we would get the best products and system. The load constantly changes around the campus, and that's unusual." Moreno points to a combination of responsiveness and economy in their wireless architecture:
The integrators with FireTide have been fantastic. Any time we've needed to make adjustments, they've been there. FireTide could provide us with access points that would support 128 users in a 2-radio access points. That made the number of access points required go way down.
We needed the client support and the support in moving from one classroom to the next -- the iPads are handed off from one access point to the next, and people aren't dropped as they move from one AP to another, or from one classroom to another.
Ultimately, though, any education change will be judged on results. When asked about results, Jean is unapologetic:
There's no data now. It's my opinion. I used to think it was too early but you're not going to see the impact in test results. We didn't ask a textbook or a pencil to improve test results.
It helps with organization, and helps them become prepared for college and adult life. Great students are very organized, and this helps struggling students become more organized, which lets them reduce the struggle. Now, they can record lectures, and if they don't absorb the lesson they can go home and listen to it again.
It's like the way that the computer has made us more productive at work, but it's tough to say that it's made us better workers.