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When Every Student Has a Computer at Home

The history of technology in education is one of schools running to catch up with technology developments outside of school. Learning from our past follies in this area, perhaps now it is time we anticipate how ubiquitous computer access can be achieved and then exploited to benefit all children.

Computers have been used in schools since the early 1970s, and today there are at least a few in virtually every school, and most students now have access at home. But, the fact that not all students have their own computers at home limits instructional uses of computers in as well as out of school. A teacher cannot, for example, assign homework requiring a computer if only 20 out of her 25 students have working computers at home.

A number of developments are about to change this. One is the rapid adoption of smart phones and tablet computers, which are making electronic access more common and less expensive at home. The second is the impending extinction of the paper textbook, which may soon create an enormous economic incentive for school districts or states to give away inexpensive computers to students, so that they can replace paper textbooks with cheaper e-texts.

When every student has a computer, the educational uses of technology can be transformed, especially if innovators seize the opportunity to create exciting, interactive software rather than simply converting linear textbooks into their electronic equivalents.

Ubiquitous access to computers could solve one of the key limitations on educational computer apps, the fact that devices available only during the school day conflict with the structure of school, which typically has teachers and classrooms designed for group teaching, not individualized, self-paced work. As a result, actual use of computers documented by research is far less than what advocates or providers might hope, and this may explain the limited impacts of computer-assisted instruction on reading and math learning.

If teachers could assign daily homework on computers, students could on their own do work that fills in gaps in their learning. Students performing ahead of the class could go into advanced topics. Just as kids play games not only with the computers, but also with others virtually anywhere else, if students have just read an assigned book or learned about a given topic, they could engage in guided discussions online about that book or topic with e-pals anywhere in the world.

Ubiquitous computers at home could enable students to watch video content at home linked to topics they are learning in school. Why take class time to show a video when it can be viewed as homework? This opens up new uses for already-produced as well as new educational programming while also offering teachers more time on task in the classroom.

Despite the rapid approach of ubiquitous computer availability at home, I am not aware of much research or development anticipating this eventuality. There are thousands of educational apps, games, videos, and other content being created each year, of course, but is anyone weaving these into complete approaches to reading, math, science, or social studies instruction and evaluating the outcomes? It is time for the education R&D infrastructure to jump in with both feet to ensure that we are not just creating new products for young consumers. Guided by research and a mission to improve outcomes for kids, we can shift the market's focus to effective tools for students eager to learn in the technological world they are already inhabit.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

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