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The Laptop Revolution?


Would providing each student with a laptop computer revolutionize education? Laptop advocates believe that, just as all students have important educational tools like pencils and paper, they should each have access to their own computer. But are one-to-one laptop initiatives worth the cost?

In this Education Week Commentary, education historian Larry Cuban questions the direct impact of technology on student achievement. Like putting a piano in every classroom without considering who will be teaching students how to play it, merely giving each student a laptop will not raise achievement, he writes. Eager school boards, enthused at the prospect of being the first to achieve a one-to-one ratio, often confuse the piano with the music, the computer with the teacher. A computer, he cautions, is not what teachers do in a classroom. Rather, it is only a vehicle for teaching and learning.

What do you think? Does technology improve achievement? Would giving every student a laptop computer transform education? Or does the teacher still matter most?


I have a laptop and I bring it to school. I find it to be a very handy tool for taking notes, jotting down ideas and searching for answers to questions I don't readily have an answer for. It is a tool and a valuable one. I could teach without it. I could learn and my students could learn without it, but if it is available, it ought to be used. Cost is a definite factor. If schools issue laptops to students, there are issues of reesponsibility and some students and their families would be hard pressed to purchase a laptop of their own. Local industries and businesses that want technically trained graduates may be encouraged to donate to a laptop fund. Students must be responsible for their equipment, but care should be taken to not harshly affect a family's finances because of accidents or theft. Dare I say it, perhaps a kind of insurance program would help.

Technology is always attractive. People love gadgets. However, in the world's most important undertaking, education of youth, there are some things that need attention first. One of them is providing all students with teachers who are experts in the field being taught.

During my 40 years in the profession I had the opportunity to witness the introduction of many kinds of technology to the classroom. Much of it was oversold. Most of it was, eventually, incorporated into the fabric of the instructional system in such a way as to be helpful. There was usually some professional, such as a AV coordinator who moved the technology around, mainly to PE and Health classes. With the introduction of computers to schools, mainly and early, by Apple, a mystique was established, complete with temple-like rooms to which classes were marched so that they could learn, at first, typing, and eventually Word Processing(the new rubric for Composition-for-everyman). Finally, non-Apple suppliers got into the game upon realizing how many millions and millions of dollars could be made, supplying school systems with equipment that had a microscopic life cycle compared to that of other AV equipment. Teachers, assumed to be technophobic, had to endure "Computer Literacy" classes, and kept their mouths shut about their own home-based systems.

Through it all, we waited for the INTERNET that was going to connect us all in some sort of village-like setting. Not long after the web's popularization, the fear mongers were able to sell the schools "firewalls". The main upshoot of this was that the Health teacher could no longer connect the class to sites dealing with Breast Cancer or HIV because of forbidden or "dirty" words caught by the "firewalls".

All of this evolution of "Marketing of Technology" served to divert the school managers from their most important task: assuring that the teachers being put into the classrooms were experts in their fields. Over the years there was always some innovation that was going to solve all problems. Once it was "Programmed Instruction", in the late '50's, this morphed into "Teaching Machines". Then, there were were flurries of interest in specific methods of instruction, usually in "steps" that would simplify evaluation of teaching and assure "uniformity" across a district. This "magic box" fascination also included "Alphabet" curricula in Science and Math. Surely "7 Steps" or PSSC would simplify the school manager's task. Finally, enter personal computers with their promises and marketing innovations and, hey, all kids might be parked in front of a crt and.....

Now we have the question of "Laptops". If a district has so much money left over after astroturffing the playing fields that something needs to be done with it, go for it. Give every child another gadget. But never forget that the expertise of the adult in front of the class will always be the "least common denominator" of excellence of the district's instructional apparatus.

Would providing each student with a laptop computer revolutionize education?

The short answer-you are darn right. The longer, more complicated answer is if we can figure out how to approach these initiatives from the prospect of teaching and learning and not from the 1:1 hype. Larry Cuban makes some very good points (good education is about good teachers, the committment to professional development, budgetary planning) and I'll add another one: having teachers and students as part of the discussion so that the possibilities can be explored. Cuban offers examples from ACOT where teachers found 1:1 not to be necessary, stating that 1/2 computers could do the same thing. Here's where I think we are limiting our vision. Current research tells us that a large component of the learning process takes places outside of the classroom and not between the hours of 8:00 and 3:30. Thinking of a 1:1 as 20 kids in a class typijng away is way off. Empowering students with laptops(including a wireless network at school and broadband at home)opens up a new world of possibilities. Couple the 1:1/"anytime wireless" with a leading-edge professional development program for teachers and there's no telling where education can take us. Providing the arena for schools to start emphasizing the skill of "learning to learn"-one thing is for sure, we will all do a better job of helping to cultivate life long learnings and not just for the students.

As a 10-year veteran of students with laptops in a 1-to-1 classroom setting, I read Larry Cuban's commentary with interest. Indeed, we need good research and evaluation of techniques in order to improve instruction and student achievement. Let us not be narrowly focused, however, on measuring success or failure by test scores alone.

Certainly, my own anecdotal evidence of student laptop programs includes the positives of more student ease with technology and increased motivation to pursue the unknown. Writing skills, communication, organization, productivity and access to information - all are enhanced in a 1-to-1 user-to-computer environment. It is also accurate to point out that implementing such a program is challenging especially regarding cost and tech support.

Are laptops education's silver bullet? No, any improvement in education takes dedication on the part of teachers, school leadership and parents to learner-centered education, and for that paradigm shift, there is much good research to point the way. If we truly wish to empower our students, we must plan learner-centered lessons, put the tools in our students' hands and coach.

Technology has great potential for raising student achievement. However, a laptop alone will not do it. There are many more factors that have to be in place. First of all, the student has to want to learn or be capable of being convinced that he/she wants to learn and that it is not a bad thing. This is where not only the teacher, but the parents come in (low tech). After this hurdle is crossed, the laptop would only be the first step. Next would be the software that would be required to help meet the educational goals. Once all software titles have been identified, the teachers would need training on both how to use the software and how to integrate it into their lessons. If the teacher knows how to use the software and can model it effectively, then the technology can make an impact on student achievement. Can this be done without technology, of course it can. How do you think we did it up until now?

When schools make the decisions to go the technology route, they (and the public) must realize that it is not cheap. The cost of the laptop, and even software, is just the beginning. A lot of time must go into the procurement process to get contract vehicles in place to procure everything. Then there's the support on the back end. What if the laptop's hard drive crashes? What if the student can't have his laptop available for a week because you had to send it back for repairs? It takes money to support technology whether it be a warranty, person on-site to repair, or have a bank of spares. You really need to take a holistic view when talking about technology to look at the procurement, training, maintaining, replacement, and disposal aspects of the entire life cycle.

Whenever anybody uses the word "revolution" in education, check your wallet. For despite all the hype, we still lack solid evidence that wired classrooms boost learning achievement more than un-wired classrooms, all other things being equal.

Just this year, in Texas, a massive evaluation study of technology in Texas classrooms came up with the uninspiring finding that, while attitudes toward school improved, "there were no statistically significant effects of immersion [in technology] in the first year on either reading or mathematics achievement for sixth graders."

What evidence exists that blackboards, desks, chalk, or textbooks raise student test scores? Connecting the dots is very difficult to do, yet I don't see Cuban arguing against investing in those classroom staples. The argument continues to be made that there is no evidence that student access to computers raises test scores. This is as ridiculous an argument as making a case against other tools and resources that create a good learning environment. My daughter lugs around 50 pounds of textbooks, to and from school. How are those raising text scores? Investing in great teachers should be a priority -- but is that an argument against technology and getting our classrooms into the 21st century? Nobody is suggesting that computers replace teachers or computer purchases be prioritized above teaching resources, but teachers, like other business people, can leverage technology and improve the teaching experience. No one can ignore that the way kids today take in information is entirely different than how Larry Cuban and other technology antagonists did or do. Today's students rely on the Internet, blogs, social networking and other digital channels for everything. Wikipedia has trumped encyclopedia. It is time that we get with the program and cease the senseless arguments against digitizing our classrooms.
The biggest complaint our students have about school is that it is boring and irrelevant. And no wonder. They are being taught the same way their great-grandparents were in a world where just about everything else is very, very different. And very,very digital. I suggest that all those who argue against computers in school try working without one. After all, can they prove they make more money because they have access to their own computer?

As a public school teacher, administrator and educational change agent in Michigan for 34 years, my experience in working with Michigan's one to one teaching and learning program, Freedom to Learn (FTL), has been to witness more transformed/reformed classrooms than any other approach in which I've been involved. These classrooms, through observation and evaluation findings, are more student-centered and constructivist than those compared on a national level. There is also evidence of increased student achievement and 'meaningful' as opposed to 'low level' uses of technology integration.

Michigan's Freedom to Learn program is an education initiative not a technology initiative. FTL champions education, economic and access goals for students and the state. It is true, the presence and even utilization of technology tools does not increase student achievement. We have communicated that the formula for increased student achievement includes: 'meaningfully' used technology tools (in this case, the laptop for each student) with a guaranteed curriculum aligned with state benchmarks and quality instruction. Larry Cuban (and others) are right! As a stand alone, students having laptops does not make for school reform or enhanced student success.

However, Larry Cuban did not mention Michigan's comprehensive evaluation by the University of Memphis's Center for Research and Educational Policy which incorporates direct classroom observation, by trained practitioners, of student and teacher classroom behavior in FTL schools, in addition to student, teacher and parent/caregiver surveys. Findings of that research are at www.ftlwireless.org. In addition, schools such as Bear Lake, Whittier and Bendle Middle Schools in Michigan demonstrated increased student achievement (with MEAP and grade point averages as the measures). Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, an FTL demonstration site, also have evidence in their four middle schools, all one to one implementations for several years, of increased student achievement on MEAP and other local assessments.

It is easy to say that there is not a compelling and large body of evidence to warrant districts' costly purchase of one to one personal portable technology for its students. There is obviously not longitudinal research in this area. But evidence has to begin somewhere. At www.one-to-oneinstitute.org you will find two compendia of research assembled to inform progress in this area.

FTL is a comprehensive solution for success in schools demonstrated by the following:

- a comprehensive, ongoing professional development component for administrators, teachers and technology personnel
demonstration and showcase sites for professional development across the state
- digital coaches to pr

- classroom level student assessment
- program level evaluation
- statewide professional learning community

Continued from above:

- a comprehensive, ongoing professional development component for administrators, teachers and technology personnel
demonstration and showcase sites for professional development across the state
digital coaches to provide coaching and mentoring onsite

- classroom level student assessment
- program level evaluation
- statewide professional learning community
- support from vendors and subvendors
- collaborative partnerships with othe one to one programs across the country.

I am somewhat dubious of this “revolution.” It clearly is a costly proposition, of order $1000 per student. How often do the students need to have a computer at their desk? There would have to be a very strong commitment by the faculty to use the technology, otherwise, it is just another weight that the student needs to cart around. In fact, it is worse because of the risks of loss or damage. Although, I believe technology has the potential for making a classroom more interactive and engaging. For example, we installed a classroom response system in one of our large lecture halls and periodically, while teaching, I put up a multiple choice question related to the material just covered (like polling the audience from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”). The students love the system and I get close to 100% participation. In addition to the high rate of participation, I also get real-time feedback on their conceptual understanding, which allows me to adjust the pace of the class. One could imagine setting up a chat session to enhance the level of participation or using a spreadsheet to graph data during a lab. So there are many creative ways one can introduce technology to improve the pedagogy. I do not find “note taking” to be realistic or a compelling reason to adopt laptops. Our engineering department requires students to have laptops and I frequently teach introductory physics to these students and less than 1% use their laptops for note taking. I am an advocate for technology when it can be effectively utilized. With the current trend toward smaller classes (another costly endeavor), I am not convinced that a laptop for every student is needed for enhanced participation. Certain classes may have a greater need and it may make more sense to just put them in those classrooms. The setup and maintenance overhead may be too much for many teachers and would require strong support from the administration. If I had to make the decision to adopt this policy, the threshold would be high. I would require proposals from the faculty detailing how they plan to use them, and how they are going to evaluate the effectiveness.

Providing a laptop for every student and teacher in a district is an expensive project. The financial obligations that small rural districts are already facing require allocating funds needed in other facets of the school. Our district prefers to focus upon training students to use the technology in more cost efficient ways. Not all students require the use of every available type of software. However, we can provide a variety of software choices in our computer labs. Providing every student a seamless transition from high school technology to college technology is more important to our district than to provide expensive note taking equipment.

See Washington Post article: Washington Post article 12/09/06: For Some, Laptops Don't Compute

Two themes stand out to me in particular in these discussions: (1) the need to shift the focus of school dialogue about educational technology from the technology itself to the changes it enables in teaching and learning, and (2) the need to overhaul teacher professional development and faculty evaluations to ensure that teachers are not only being made aware of the resources available at a school, but are prepared and expected to use them within their classes.

Technology in classrooms today often reside as curricular add-ons as opposed to fundamental building blocks. The key for consequential use of any technology tool in a classroom is to get educational technology written into the curriculum in a meaningful way, and this requires significant effort and commitment.

Schools also need to get better at articulating what they want kids/adults to do with technology; just showing them the mechanics of use will not create the desired results.

For example, do we want kids to engage in multicultural experiences that raise their awareness and sensitivity to other cultures and societies? If so, then we must have teachers write/create curricular frameworks that have students engaging meaningfully with students from around the globe via the Internet. For some, this will require a new way of designing curricular units - therefor, the support given will need to be centered more around reframing the curriculum than tech skills.

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Recent Comments

  • Kate Dimond - Ed. Tech. Specialist: Two themes stand out to me in particular in these read more
  • Jim Dunne, physics professor, Mississippi State University: See Washington Post article: Washington Post article 12/09/06: For Some, read more
  • John Hasten/Superintendent Palestine CUSD #3: Providing a laptop for every student and teacher in a read more
  • JIm Dunne, physics professor, Mississippi State University: I am somewhat dubious of this “revolution.” It clearly is read more
  • Leslie Wilson, Director, Michigan's Freedom to Learn: Continued from above: - a comprehensive, ongoing professional development component read more




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