Laptop Lessons

As school districts try to stretch their tech dollars, they are testing ways to bring the Internet and mobile computing to the classroom.
January 2005
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

As school districts try to stretch their tech dollars, they are testing ways to bring the Internet and mobile computing to the classroom.

Maine is well known for its pioneering project to outfit all seventh- and eighth-graders with their own laptops. But now that the first batch of seventh-graders who started in the program have reached high school, they have had to leave their state-funded Apple computers behind.

That has compelled Governor John Baldacci and his education commissioner to put together a budget proposal for deploying laptop computers to all Maine high schools over the next three years. By fiscal 2008, the state's cost would add up to $21 million for computers in 119 high schools. Local districts would have to come up with nearly half the funding. It's an indication that educators around the country realize how crucial it is to keep up to speed with changing state and federal educational requirements and to be able to add to or change the curriculum without buying new, expensive textbooks. Laptops provide that kind of flexibility.

With the program in its third year, Maine is still bullish on its $37 million laptop program for 240 middle schools and the testing of a concept known in education and technology circles as "one-to-one computing." One of the more heartening results officials have found so far is that there is increased engagement by formerly unmotivated students.

And no wonder. Lessons are not static and chalkboard oriented. After the elections, for instance, students were able to read newspapers from around the world to see how other nations reacted. In science class, students evaluated the results of measurements they had taken of temperature and algae concentration in a local lake by tapping into data-analyzing software used by graduate students at Harvard University.That enthusiasm is echoed in New Hampshire. There, Governor Craig Benson helped raise more than $1 million in private money to equip 700 seventh graders in six schools in poorer communities with Apple iBooks and a wireless network for connecting to the Internet and each other. "It's changed the dynamics of education," he says, noting that students are excited about coming to school in the morning and that disciplinary issues have eased.

But the reviews of Maine's program, which is further along than those in other states, are not uniformly rosy. Some students complain that they often have to instruct their teachers on how to use the computers and that the laptops are too slow. More important, some analysts claim that the program is a flop as measured by student test scores.

It's true that standardized test scores on the Maine Educational Assessment, given to students in grades four, eight and 11, did not improve for eighth graders in the second year of the laptop program, but that is not relevant, says Tony Sprague, project manager. The test was never designed as a measure of the laptop program. The same students are not tested each time, and the tests change each time. Moreover, any innovation in the classroom takes more than a year to prove itself.

There are other ways, short of universal laptops, to provide students with one-to-one computing. One is "computers on wheels," otherwise known as COWS. Laptop carts are wheeled around to different students at different times. According to market research by Quality Education Data, mobile laptop equipment is a top seller in the school sector.

Students in a ground-breaking high school in Arizona won't have to share laptops. Vail School District officials are so certain that students at Empire High School outside Tucson can learn via computers that there will be no individual textbooks for students. All the students will be given wireless laptops. The school won't have to retrofit. It is being built from the ground up with extra power outlets and wireless access points.

There are many ambitious projects underway around the country and many educators have placed their hopes in the ability of technology to improve how students learn. But Sprague cautions that just supplying laptops does not a better student make. "It's about teaching and learning," he says. "You can't just hand technology over and expect it to make a big difference. This plays into a larger puzzle of teachers and schools and leadership."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |