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Technical Difficulties

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Perhaps chalk is the best teaching tool after all. Last month a federal study found cast doubt on the benefits of educational software, and now some schools districts are dropping one-to-one laptop programs. “After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement—none,” says Mark Lawson, board president for Liverpool Central School District in New York. The district initially implemented the program to give all students access to a computer at home and prepare them for a tech-savvy future. But it also resulted in students cheating, looking at pornography, and crashing the network. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way," adds Lawson. "It’s a distraction to the education process.” Schools in Virginia, California, and Florida have followed suit, citing the financial burden of purchasing and repairing laptops and the lack of a clear academic payoff. Still, some say school districts are giving up too soon. “If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool,” notes Mark Warschauer, author of Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom. “But if the goal is to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future, then laptops are extremely useful.”

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The highly under-reported aspect of the Liverpool situation is the political nature of this decision. No matter how much spin can be generated, this program failed not because students accessed inappropriate material or that test scores didn't improve (which weren't part of the original superintendent's purposes in introducing the 1-to-1 program) but because administration, starting in the superintedent's office, did not provide compelling leadership to push through an educationally-innovative program. If laptops aren't being integrated into curriculum and students aren't disengaged from class, why is it the student's fault? Why is the educator not doing her/his job in developing a compelling curriculum that integrates technology in creative, collaborative ways to engage students in learning? And contrary to opinion, there ARE supporters of the Liverpool program - witness the fact that this year's meeting of parents of 8th graders to enter 9th grade (and hence, the high school laptop program) had the biggest turnout of the program's career. However, there seems to be a failure in communication since no one on the technology staff was told (much less parents!) the program was about to receive the axe from on high. That does not sound like quality leadership to me. The New York Times did a disservice to its readership by poorly investigating and reporting on this story. They should have started with page 170 of Liverpool's own third-year evaluation report which said, "Adults involved in any way with the Laptop Program... must reaffirm that the purpose of school, and the purpose of such projects as the Laptop Program, has to be about the students - not about the politics of adults." This is not a damning statement about the students or their use - it's a statement about the politics of adults trusted to provide a learning environment for children. They failed. The NY Times should have reported that.

Matthew's comments bring up some interesting points. I was a technology director in a large (1800 students) for 10 years. One of our major issues was always what to do with computers. We never had laptops for all our students, but we did have 25 available for use in the library. All I can tell you is that they were a LOT more work than the 50 desktops we also had in there. I received similar reports from other schools in our area (Chicago) ... entire "units" had to be set up to keep the machines operational.

The more interesting issue is the position that teachers are somehow responsible for integrating computers into the curriculum. This seems like the wrong approach to me. Computers are tools, and as such they have a place in our programs. However, to design programs around computers seems inappropriate. I taught English during these same 10 years (an interesting combination), and I rarely had use for computers, except for looking up information. I probably could have "forced" them into the work we were doing, but it seemed unnatural, and didn't seem to add anything to the program.

I understand that computers can just as easily get in the way of learning as aid learning.

I am old enough to remember the introduction of TV and "Language Labs" into our schools. Lots of lost promise, perhaps because they were treated as ends rather than as means?

Computer are here to stay, and can be a great help. But I think it is correct to criticize the way they are delivered. But just because that are useful sometimes, it doesn't mean they are useful at all times and in all ways.

Tim,

Thank you for your comments. I would not characterize it as the need for teachers only to integrate technology into curriculum, but a whole host of actors - from school/district leadership, parents, professionals within the community, and yes, students. Together, these forces should be saying that technology is not only here to stay, but that it can be as transformative for education as it has been in other realms. For example, think of accounting. I do, because I was originally educated as an accountant. It wasn't just partners that said, "Hey, we should use these new tools called computers." It was clients, it was junior associates, and it was most definitely the public, as consumers of business information, albeit in a round-about way. It was not just an accountant that needed to make the change - a community needed to make it, and make it they did. Though there are problems (look at the issue of Enron and the manipulation they were able to do using technology), but that did not mean we strip technology for business. Yet, that's the reaction we have in education.

The other very strong point is that the curriculum should not be based on technology, but it does require a rethinking of how any particular subject is taught. Since you mentioned English, I will tell you the single biggest disappointment from my education through 12th grade was the inability to write, edit, and think in a process-oriented way. My teachers were only interested in the final product. From most of the teachers I talk with regularly, this may be out of necessity - how else can a teacher assess written work quickly and efficiently for all students? Now, with Google Docs the possibility of working collaboratively - and GRADING ON PROCESS - is completely possible. Here, we teach a variety of 20th century skills - grammar, structure, writing - and add in 21st century skills of collaboration, editing, and a process-oriented assessment. The teaching is not around the technology, but the technology does allow for learning that is otherwise not possible.

To me it's a bit of a bummer - if I knew what I know know, I would have approached school much differently. I would have advocated for my teachers to actively challenge me with collaborative situations with my peers, assess me on a process-oriented basis, and allow me to explore, create, make mistakes, and debug as a learning process. And I would do it all with a laptop computer; it took me only a few months of college to realize that the laptop was in infinitely helpful aid to assist me in learning - I don't want to make other children have wait that long to make that discovery.

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