Chat rooms at Blackboard.com may not be on the average teen's list of hottest cyberspots. But they're cool enough for John Magee's students at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, California.
Magee's Advanced Placement Biology students access assignments on the Web and download them onto their computers to complete them. And parents who fear getting stumped when their kids ask them about photosynthesis can take heart -- Magee's students can either e-mail him for help or pop into a chat room where he's fielding questions from other students.
"The course became available twenty-four seven," Magee says. "My e-mail is always on, so I'm able to respond pretty quickly. It's usually within an hour or two."
Staying wired is hardly unusual at Fremont High -- the students and teachers at the school have access to six mobile lab carts with 75 iBook SEs that can be rolled in and out of classrooms.
"Instead of going to a computer lab, the lab comes to you," said Fremont High principal Peter Tuana.
Five years from now, Tuana would like all the students at Fremont High to have a laptop to call their own. For now, though, he's pleased with the 400MHz laptops that he has.
At Fremont High, the iBook-bearing carts are wheeled around to math, science, English, and social studies classes. Each lab cart has AirPort technology that gives students and teachers wireless access to the Internet anywhere on campus.
Virtually every Fremont High teacher uses Web-based services such as Blackboard.com to post assignments, link to homework sites, and prepare lessons. In the classroom, teachers use projectors linked to their iBooks to illustrate lessons as Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. Meantime, students use their laptops to access and work on Web-based worksheets.
Here's how it works in Magee's biology class. The teacher kicked off a 25-minute lesson on cellular mitosis using PowerPoint. As Magee talked, students could add notes to a printed version of the lesson.
After the lecture, the class split up into three groups, with each group working on a specific part of the lesson. Students used the iBooks to log on to www.biology.com and work on an online mitosis tutorial.
"They were having to drag images across the screen," Magee says. "The tutorial was asking them questions and showing them diagrams and simulations."
Students were quizzed at the end of the tutorial. They submitted their lab work and quiz responses online and got their scores. Magee will get the results through e-mail.
Magee scans Web sites like Biology.com for tutorials that suit his classroom needs. Those Web sites also offer lab exercises that Magee says give him the chance to do things in class that he couldn't before.
"We didn't have the equipment for it," he adds. "Now I'm able to use a lot of the labs online, instead of spending a lot of time and money setting it up in class."
The downside to this high-tech approach is that students lose out on the experience of manipulating some lab equipment for themselves. But not entirely -- Magee can always bring in a few frogs for dissection when the need arises.
The iBooks haven't presented teachers with too many technical problems. "I was getting pretty good connection speeds [with AirPort], and I wasn't getting too many crashes," Magee says. "That could have been a frustration because your blackboard never freezes. And textbooks don't crash either."
If only the students were always that well behaved. "The first time we used the chat room, it was a disaster," Magee concedes. The whiteboard in the online chat room used for illustrating diagrams turned into a graffiti canvas. "And everyone was jumping in with comments and questions whenever they felt like it," he adds. But after a few rules were set up, the students got back on track.
So Magee's a big believer in the iBook's place in the classroom. "I have literally hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from students asking me questions that they probably wouldn't have [asked] in class," he says. "My communication with my class went up massively."
In fact, the only complaint so far seems to be that there aren't enough iBooks to go around. Fremont High funded its mobile iBook lab by taking part in the Stanford University professional development school program. The high school also tapped sources such as the state Digital High School grant.
"We found that the iBook is an extremely easy machine to use," Tuana says. "We have very little maintenance with them. They're just great little machines."