Professional Learning

The Best 1:1 Device is a Good Teacher

July 29, 2013
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Over the course of two years, I, along with the Burlington Public Schools tech team, had the opportunity to meet and connect with over one hundred schools. These discussions would usually involve what device works best in the classroom and how the iPad is affecting teaching and learning outcomes. Frequently this conversation focuses on the most effective hardware for teaching and learning. While this is an important decision to make, it should not be the focus. In fact, the best devices a school can employ are great teachers.

Smashing the State of the Art

We have reached a point in education technology where devices are, for the most part, adaptable. Most of the programs a school uses throughout a typical day are web-based, and hardly anything is stored locally. At Burlington Public Schools, our Director of Instructional Technology, Dennis Villano, likes to take someone's iPad and make the motion as if he were going to smash it into a million pieces.

This hypothetical simulation is a great example of how little hardware actually matters any more. While both the iPad camp and the Chromebook camp will argue how their respective device is superior, I can easily envision both working well for a variety of content area classrooms. In fact, the idea of going all in with a singular device is beginning to evolve. What school districts and administrators should control are the ways in which they create and foster a culture of adaptability before instituting a 1:1 environment.

As I mentioned earlier, the best device a school can roll out is a teacher who can adapt to new and emerging technologies, does not always require formal training for learning and staying current, and is not tethered to a product (such as PowerPoint or a SmartBoard) in order to teach. Education technology will continue to progress, and part of this evolution will be for students and teachers to stay current with both curriculum and digital literacy. Even in the absence of technology, a great teacher will continually seek out ways to engage his or her students in great lessons, simulations or challenges.

Innovation on the Fly

To illustrate the points I’ve made, I'll share a true story. A few months ago, our high school had a visitor from Perth, Australia. She expected to see iPads being used to engage and instruct, but what she actually saw was fly swatters. Yes, fly swatters.

We walked into Todd Whitten's class and witnessed two students at the front of the board slapping fly swatters over terms projected on the wall. The concept was novel, yet effective. Some students were using their iPads to record the review via Evernote, while others watched their classmates have a debate at the board over the subject at hand. Basically, Todd was providing a prompt, students had to slap the term on the board that coordinated with that prompt, and then discuss or debate their reasoning. Regardless of the devices or applications, the students were engaged. And I am certain there are many other classrooms out there like Mr. Whitten's. I'm certain that the use of technology can be veiled by innovative learning goals and objectives. I'm certain that Todd did not need mandatory training on the technology he and his students were using at the moment to create an engaging lesson.

The simple point is that Todd can adapt to the environment and challenges he faces as an educator -- which is why his classroom desk design is never the same. He not only adapts personally to new and emerging technologies and teaching strategies, but he also challenges his students to adapt to different classroom designs daily. This is what being a "21st century educator" should look like.

Contrary to my assertion is the sentiment that teachers don't have enough time to learn new things, or that professional development must come during contracted hours approved by a union. And that is fine. Eventually these "educators" will be replaced as quickly as the technologies and progressive pedagogy (alliteration breakdown: say it five times fast!) they refute or hold onto for dear life. What will sustain through all the changes is the teacher who is constantly curious, driven by the possibilities of his or her classroom, and never satisfied with repeating lessons and practice. Devices come and go, but progressive teachers who adapt will last longer than any device.

Self-Paced Professional Development

Here are some options for self-paced, learn-when-you-can professional development. Your district will not hand you these options, but I encourage you to seek them out.


iTunesU is an iPad-based repository of courses, lectures and resources for teachers and students. The content can be accessed exclusively on the iPad, and the material is all vetted for accuracy and copyright. Courses can be accessed or created by individuals or teachers through iTunesU Course Manager. Course manager is only available on the Apple platform and when using the Safari browser.


Coursera is a free online course catalog that allows anyone in the world take courses from some of the best instructors on the planet. Coursera does not offer accreditation for teachers yet, but they are advocating for this issue. Regardless, this site is chock full of courses that anyone can take at any time.


Google+ is emerging as a credible venue for professional development and anytime learning. It's a free platform, and if you work in an organization that employs Google Apps for Education, you already have an account. Google+ offers Google "Hangouts" as the venue for presenting professional development sessions. The best part about this option is that Hangouts are archived on the YouTube account of the author or group.


Everyone in education loves Twitter. Twitter can be a great venue for learning if you organize it and filter it (I recommend TweetDeck). Jumping headfirst into something like #edchat will only confuse and overwhelm you. My recommendation is to use Twitter sparsely at first. Find a few educators to follow, and spend a good amount of time listening, reading and processing. Follow Steve Anderson, Kristen Swanson, Alec Couros, John Spencer, Lyn Hilt, Rich Kiker, Dean Shareski, Joyce Valenza, Kyle Pace and Edutopia -- to start. But start simple and listen to what the aforementioned educators have to say.


EdCamp is the standard professional development for education. I've attended and organized several EdCamps and find them to be the most rewarding experiences that I've had in education. I've made great connections and friends as a result of this format, and it is professional development that allows everyone to participate and have a voice.

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