Where did ubermix come from?
ubermix was born at the Saugus Union School District in Southern California as part of the Student Writing Achievement Through Technology Enhanced Collaboration (SWATTEC) program, which began in the 2008-09 school year. Developed entirely in the open by Jim Klein, Director of Information Services & Technology, ubermix has always been intended to be shared with the broader education community, in the hope that it could be used to empower other schools and districts to take on the challenge of building consistent, flexible, affordable, reliable, sustainable, and scalable 1:1 technology programs.
Throughout ubermix's development, Klein recognized that the potential of technology to transform learning has always been clear, yet achieving an effective and sustainable implementation of a technology rich learning environment has been fraught with complexity and impracticality. Countless schools and districts have attempted to create a one-to-one student-to-device ratio, only to see their programs disintegrate due to high costs and extraordinary support requirements created by unsustainable models. Even those that are able to maintain the technology often see little-to-no recognizable gains in student academic achievement, instead making tepid claims that "traditional measures aren't effective at gauging the value of technology." (Actual quote from a prominent 1:1 state-wide program leader.)
Knowing this, Klein intentionally sought to break the traditional mold when developing the plan for the SWATTEC program. Advancements in low-cost devices coupled with the opportunities created by free software to not only increase the variety and flexibility of tools available to students, but also to create custom, easy-to-use interfaces, offered a real opportunity to change the paradigm of one-to-one. Rather than a "laptop-centric" model, where the focus, by necessity of their inherent complexity, unreliability, and short battery life, is on the technology itself, Klein saw a way to create a "device-centric" model, were the technology could be reliable, continuously accessible, easy-to-use, always connected, and available at a moments notice. Throughout the process, the Klein intentionally sought to mimic the characteristics of students' number one technology - the cell phone - with all the rich opportunities to create and innovate that a laptop can bring.
To test the theory, Klein assembled a team of technologists and classroom teachers to determine just what it would take to implement a one-to-one program that would be widely adopted by teachers in the classroom. Through extensive conversations, key themes began to emerge: reliability, management, staff development, and local support.
To address reliability, the district turned to Linux and open-source software. Recognizing that placing thirty-plus devices in a classroom might leave teachers wide-eyed and fearful, Saugus set out to construct a user experience that not only met the needs of the students, but also teachers. Through the use of open-source, an interface was created that operates much like a cell phone, with large icons that cannot be easily moved or deleted. Not only does this give students "something to click on", it also prevents accidental moves, deletes, etc., which can hamper use. Next, a quick restore feature was added, which allows a system to be reset to it's default settings in just twenty seconds. The reset process was designed to be accessible with the stroke of a key, making it possible for teachers to handle all of their software problems as needed at a moment's notice, without the help of an IT person. Those reliability features, when combined with access to fifty-plus applications (enabled once again by open-source), create a powerful platform for learning.
Reliability alone is not enough - educators also want manageability. To provide this, Saugus turned to the open-source classroom management tool, iTalc. iTalc enables the teacher to see what's on every screen, take over a screen, share their screen with all of the devices, allow a student to share their screen with all the other devices, and lock screens to garner attention. Technical support staff can also remotely access machines and provide immediate technical support. These capabilities, combined with the reliability features above, help to take the "scary" out of one-to-one, which frees teachers to focus on learning activities, not technology.
Even with the right hardware and software in place, Klein recognized that if technology was going to make a difference, teachers were going to be at the center of it. As such, an extensive staff development plan was developed. Teachers in the program received training over two years on the effective integration of continuously accessible technology in the classroom, as well as key 21st century literacies, such as digital citizenship, internet safety, ethics, cyber-bullying, and copyright and licensing. In addition, a comprehensive mentor program was established to provide additional training and support to key technology leaders at each school site, who provide mentoring and modeling. All are provided with out of classroom time and extra duty/extra pay build communities of practice and work on their skills.
As a result, students now exercise creativity and innovation skills as they construct content using a range of available tools and resources, tying them together in a cohesive way in their blogs and wikis. Communication and collaboration is fostered not only through conversations generated by commenting mechanisms, but also through group projects and content creation opportunities both within and outside the base curriculum. As part of the district's efforts, teacher and student skills are developed in research and information fluency, including such key skills such as determining source, accuracy, authenticity, and bias. Critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making are a natural part of the process, as students are offered both self and group directed inquiry-based projects over a variety of mediums. And of course, technology operations and concepts are critical throughout, as none of the above would be possible without key technology skills.
Academic achievement results have also been profound. Student proficiency in English Language Arts on the state test jumped an incredible twenty-four percent (24%) - a greater gain than Saugus has seen in any year since state testing was instituted. Student writing tests showed an average thirty-seven percent (37%) gain, with several students achieving fifty percent (50%) or more individually. Both student and teacher technology literacy also showed impressive gains, and students are more actively engaged and participating in their own learning.
The effectiveness and success of the program has drawn the attention of dozens of schools and districts across the country and around the world, who are now utilizing ubermix and Saugus' methodologies in their own classrooms. From large districts like Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, to small ones like Le Grande Union High School District in northern CA, tens of thousands of students are realizing the benefits the ubermix model, sharing in the effectiveness of the freely available software, and reaping the rewards of a new paradigm for education technology.