Howard Levin and The Amazing Urban School Laptop Program

8 Feb

As I roll my sleeves up and prepare to really get my students ready for our spring concert, I want to take a moment to reflect on a particularly awesome individual, a man whose vision, discipline, and understanding of the fundamentals of teaching have pushed the limits of technology in education. Also, a really cool guy whom I have had the pleasure of knowing and learning from during my past six years as a teacher – the one and only Howard Levin, director of technology at The Urban School of San Francisco.

If you spend five minutes at Urban, you’ll immediately see Howard all over the place, though you might not know it’s him you’re seeing. Students all tote white macbooks, crowding around one another’s video projects, sharing earbuds to listen to music (both their own and that of their favorite bands), video-chatting one another or silently typing away on a paper. You can’t help but notice how remarkable it all is, and you’re not the only one – Urban is at the absolute leading edge of technological implementation.

The whole thing – the school’s much-talked about 1:1 laptop program, incredible (and incredibly important) FirstClass implementation, custom-designed PCR grade- and course-report database, unbelievably professional student-directed “Telling Their Stories” documentary series, vital and supremely helpful faculty training, student workshops, and even the philosophy that Urban has taken towards technology… all of that is the work of Howard, implemented over the past decade by him and his incredible two-person team. Additionally, Howard speaks at educational conventions around the world, has published a ton of articles, and is one of the most sought-after minds when it comes to tech implementation in the educational field.

I should add that Howard makes all this happen with the help of just two people. Two. Mercedes Coyle, groovy chick and drummer for dot.punto,  interfaces with the kids and gets them the technology (and, frequently, loaners and replacement parts) that they need. Computer-whisperer Igor Zagatsky, the man behind the curtain, literally keeps Urban ticking, and also built the school’s incredibly robust and flexible local server setup.  If something breaks, Igor will take a break from whatever giant project he’s working on and come make it work – he is as much a part of Urban as the walls, windows, and wiring.

But that’s it – two people. For a school of over 300 students, plus a huge number of faculty and staff… and all those people running over 50 wireless access points blasting around a constant, massive amount of network traffic… wow. That means that Howard, Mercedes, and Igor are overseeing the day-to-day operation of a network of over 400 computers.  And in spite of this, not only does everything work about 90% of the time (which, when you think about it, is insane), they have transcended technical considerations and are focused on how they can actually use this stuff to improve teaching.

Key to this is Urban’s philosophy of “making the laptop disappear.” (the brainchild of Howard, head-of-school Mark Salkind, and, and I’m sure, many members of the Urban administration and board).  If you talk to Howard for even a little bit about the Urban laptop program, you’ll hear him bring up the distinction between using technology to facilitate education and simply “teaching technology.”  It’s a very important distinction, and Urban’s embrace of the former over the latter is the entire reason that the 1:1 program works so well.

In the school’s view, a laptop is simply a tool like any other – pencil, or a notebook, protractor, calculator. Teachers at Urban don’t teach students how to browse the web, or how to type quickly – they teach math, science, music, art, and they use laptops to allow the students to learn those disciplines more effectively, and in a way that fits with how students (and people) think and communicate in the 21st century. That means that laptops need to be totally integrated into daily life at the school, from administration to teachers to students, to the point that lessons and assignments can begin, exist, and be completed online.  It requires a ton of training for teachers to make it work, but work it does, and you’d be amazed at the degree to which laptop actually does “disappear.”

By now, Urban is no longer unique as a laptop school – a huge number of schools nationwide have adopted the 1:1 program that Urban pioneered. But I’d say that Urban still does it better than almost anyone else, and remains at the cutting edge in other ways, too. They’ve installed interactive smartboards in every room, allowing teachers not just to show off sexy graphics and cutting-edge multimedia in their lessons, but to give their students immediate access to all lessons after they have been presented (by far the most useful aspect of smartboards).  What’s more, in-class video capture, as well as Skype and other videoconferencing tech, are letting kids learn and interact in a more global, decentralized way than ever before.

Wow. I still can’t believe I get to teach at this place. And while everyone here is pretty amazing, Howard still stands out. With his vision, patience, leadership, and clear-eyed understanding of the fundamentals of teaching, he’s led an entire school to the bleeding edge of the 21st century and shown us what is possible when teachers and students are given the knowledge and resources to embrace technology as a means to education instead of its end goal.

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One Response to “Howard Levin and The Amazing Urban School Laptop Program”

  1. stephen April 18, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    I admire your blog, all topics about this subject really make me want to know more.

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