Laptop learning

Burlington High principal plans for a future in which students can make the most of technology

Burlington High principal Patrick Larkin plans for a day when every student will have a laptop computer and be well versed in high-tech equipment. Burlington High principal Patrick Larkin plans for a day when every student will have a laptop computer and be well versed in high-tech equipment. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Sara Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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Patrick Larkin envisions a day when all students bring to school is a laptop, iPad, or cellphone. To the dismay of schoolchildren everywhere, snow days would be a thing of the past since students could complete their class work even when snowbound.

The Burlington High School principal may be looking ahead when he talks about leaving behind “the idea that people can only be educated between 7 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.’’ But Larkin is already a pioneer in bringing technology into his school, using social media tools to connect with students and educators.

Larkin, who is starting his fourth year at Burlington, is also incorporating technology into the school day by offering online courses for students, allowing cellphones in classrooms, and planning to make the school one of the first “one-to-one’’ schools — meaning a laptop for every student — in the state.

New technology will “raise expectations of ourselves . . . and change the way we do things,’’ Larkin said. “It’s a different mindset.’’

When Larkin, 42, first arrived in Burlington, he said, he was told he could not start a blog. But in 2008, Eric Conti signed on as the new superintendent, and he started a blog himself. Now, Larkin’s blog is a frequently updated source of information, ranging from school announcements to videos of school events.

Conti has since won awards for being tech-savvy, and he joins Larkin in the push for technology in Burlington’s schools. Adopting technology is a necessity, Conti said, “like heat, electricity, air-conditioning. I think of it as a utility, not anything new or special.’’

With technology, the district has to “trust administration, teachers, students to do the right thing,’’ he said. “Patrick’s leading the charge.’’

Though banned in most classrooms, cellphones are allowed at Burlington High. In fact, Larkin said, some teachers use texting applications for quick quizzes or classroom polls. Through texting, teachers receive instant feedback from every student in the classroom.

What about misuses of technology, such as cheating or spending class time texting or surfing?

“If they want to cheat, they’re going to cheat,’’ Larkin said, “with technology or anything else.’’ He said he doesn’t see much difference between this and the old scourge of teachers — note passing. “We’ve had no problem with note passing the last few years . . . I wonder why . . . they’re texting!’’ he said.

Larkin also has a frequently updated principal’s blog and, so far, 3,408 Twitter followers. Some students and parents follow him, he said, but he mainly uses Twitter to connect with other educators, including participating in a weekly education chat.

One of Larkin’s Twitter followers is Susan Price, who started teaching French and Spanish at Burlington High in 1980. She said Larkin has inspired teachers to use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other technologies.

“He gave me the push,’’ Price said, calling herself a “dinosaur’’ when it comes to technology.

Now, she said, she might post extra-credit assignments on Facebook, and her students are allowed to use cellphones and computers. A recent vocabulary lesson led students to look up how to do the Macarena dance on YouTube.

Burlington would be the second school in the state to implement a one-to-one plan, in which every student has a laptop computer. The Beverly school district plans to go one-to-one in fall 2011, and Larkin told the School Committee he would like Burlington to be on the same timeline.

“We’d love to be that kind of a leader in our part of Massachusetts,’’ Larkin said in a recent interview. “If it can’t be done in Burlington, it can’t be done.’’

Larkin noted the savings on textbooks and supplies that would come from students carrying laptops instead of book bags, though he said he is aware of the costs of the new program. Larkin and School Committee members noted that having students purchase the computers would be a departure for the district, which does not even charge students athletic fees.

Funding options would include having students purchase computers, computer leasing, or having the district provide the computers for the students. Larkin favors having students purchase them, because he said ownership is important, and students will need them eventually. He added that there could be bulk buying and group rates, and financial assistance for students who need it.

The Beverly school system has discussed requiring students to have MacBooks, though the district has said it will help students obtain them, including leasing the devices with an option to buy. Funding details and what kind of computers Burlington would use will be discussed further by a newly formed committee.

“It’s a big move. I’m excited,’’ Larkin said. He has already started a blog for people to follow one-to-one’s progress.

It’s a matter of when and how the district will implement the policy, said School Committee member Michael DeSimone.

While students shouldn’t be allowed to use devices to text friends in class, he said, the tools could give students information at their fingertips, from a statistics application on their phone to using Google maps to better understand geography or history.

“It’s important that kids understand how to use technology and how to use it as a form of communication,’’ DeSimone added.

Larkin credits Twitter for leading to his Skype discussions with educators from New Jersey to Germany. He said he hopes to lead by such examples when it comes to how the high school’s 1,000 students use social networking tools.

When students graduate, Larkin said, “if they only know people in Burlington, we didn’t do our job.’’

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