Laptops in Schools

The New York Times reported yesterday that Liverpool High School in Liverpool, New York is phasing out its student laptop program. The article is a perfect illustration of exactly what schools do wrong when they issue laptops to each student.

[T]echnology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums.

The article’s refrain seems to be that teachers didn’t know what to do with the laptops, students only played with them, and nothing of any educational value happened as a result.

I am fortunate to teach at a school where students can reasonably be expected to have access to a computer at home. We have a wonderful computer lab at school. In fact, I am currently debating with myself whether it’s feasible to require my students to purchase a USB flash drive as part of their school supplies for my class next year (they are currently available online for as low as $9, which is certainly less than the graphing calculators required in math). I mention this because I think it illustrates the level of comfort our school community feels with technology. Many of our students bring their own laptops to school.

Because access to technology is not a problem for my students, I am perhaps not the best person to comment on whether laptop programs are valuable or not, as they are not relevant to me. I was disturbed by some elements of the article. Was there not one teacher who used the laptops in innovative, educationally sound way? No use of wikis or blogs, no research? No composition using word processors or presentation software? I just can’t believe no one found the laptops valuable at all.

Second, I am confused about what the school authorities hoped to accomplish in issuing laptops without first offering professional development to educators. I also cannot understand why the school didn’t anticipate the problems that ensued with students’ misuse of the laptops. In the photograph at the top of the article, it looks as though the student using the laptop has even applied stickers to it. What sort of discussion about how the computer should be handled was generated? The stickers are not exactly small, and if the student has been using the laptop in class, surely someone has seen them. I probably shouldn’t even get into the appropriateness of the student’s attire, but did a school that allows students to wear shirts that seem to advocate underage drinking actually expect its students to know how to take care of and properly use a school-issued computer?

It sounds to me as if the faculty was resistant to the idea of using the laptops, but the school authorities were convinced the computers would be a panacea — test scores and grades would magically rise just because students had 24-hour access to a laptop. That is simply not the case, and of course studies coming out now showing no difference between schools who have embraced laptops versus those who haven’t are going to bear that out. However, standardized tests cannot very well measure some of the learning that takes place in Web 2.0 classrooms:

Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom” (Teachers College Press, 2006), also found no evidence that laptops increased state test scores in a study of 10 schools in California and Maine from 2003 to 2005…

But Mr. Warschauer, who supports laptop programs, said schools like Liverpool might be giving up too soon because it takes time to train teachers to use the new technology and integrate it into their classes. For instance, he pointed to students at a middle school in Yarmouth, Me., who used their laptops to create a Spanish book for poor children in Guatemala and debate Supreme Court cases found online.

“Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research,” he said.

Integrating technology comes with its own set of problems, and if you really expect positive results, you have to address those problems head-on. The overall tone of the article is clearly biased against the laptops — it does not appear to me that much effort was expended to find examples of innovation and creativity in learning with laptops. I have to agree that throwing laptops at the students and expecting something great to happen as a result is foolish at best, but schools have to decide what results they would like to achieve and actually work toward achieving those results, just as they do with any set of standards in any field of study. We don’t check out books to students and expect them to learn course material themselves. Why should we expect that tactic to work with laptops?

[tags]laptops, education, New York Times, Web 2.0[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Laptops in Schools”

  1. The article reminds me to pay attention any time the media writes about something I know more about than most people. The fact that the author focuses on the Liverpool school and name checks a few others while blithely admitting that 1000s of schools are thinking of going 1-to-1 illustrates the fact that the mainstream media is always biased and that we have to take what they say–especially "trend" pieces–with a small mountain of salt.

    I imagine it would not have taken any effort to give examples of awesome teachers using 1-to-1 in innovative ways. My class had a videoconference with an Italian school to discuss Dante's Inferno last Friday, but the author must have felt the one college professor was enough balance.

  2. Beaufort County School District used laptops in the middle school classrooms from 1992-2000. It was awesome. The best experience of my 31 years in the CR. The kids would agree. Learning in leaps and bounds, all tied into the mandated curriculum. The article was a crock, and shame on the teachers for not taking advantage of such.

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