Should laptops join lunchboxes?

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            July 4, 2000
            Web posted at: 8:09 a.m. EDT (1209 GMT)

            by Brian Robinson

            (IDG) -- This past spring, when Maine Gov.
            Angus King announced a plan to provide every
            seventh-grade student in his state with a laptop
            computer, he dramatically highlighted a national
            trend that has been gaining momentum.

            To have computers make a real difference in education, the argument
            goes, their use has to be made more personal and a part of the daily
            learning experience. And the best way to do that, proponents say, is to put
            laptops in the hands of teachers and students.

            Laptops, they contend, enhance students' problem-solving abilities, boost
            their interest in learning, improve their writing skills and give teachers the
            time for more one-on-one interaction with students than they would have
            in a "normal" classroom setting. And, since laptops can be taken home,
            they also increase students' motivation to tackle and complete homework
            assignments.

            "Schools have been abandoning the concept of PC
            labs for some time now," said Cheryl Williams,
            director of education technology programs at the
            National School Boards Association. "They are
            opting more for taking the computers into the classrooms themselves,
            where the kids are." Interest in using laptops like this has always been
            there, she said, but until recently it's been difficult to see just how to
            integrate them into lessons.

            But not everyone is so gung-ho.

            Administrators have raised questions about possible security problems with
            laptops, such as theft or misplacement. And the cost of laptops, which is
            substantially more than equivalent stand-alone PCs, has proved a major
            barrier.

            Although laptop programs at individual schools
            and school districts have been in place for a
            number of years, so far there have been few
            detailed proposals beyond the local level. The
            Texas State Board of Education championed a
            proposal several years ago to replace the state's
            school textbooks with laptop computers and
            CD-ROMs, but it never drew serious interest
            from the state legislature.

            The Maine laptop proposal so far is the only one
            to come from the top levels of state government,
            although that wasn't enough to protect it from a
            damaging barrage of opposition from other
            lawmakers who say the state would be wiser
            investing its education money differently.

            The funding was to come through an endowment
            fund established from a one-time $50 million
            appropriation from the unallocated state surplus,
            with federal or private sources chipping in
            another $15 million. Proceeds from the fund
            would have been administered by a public/private
            foundation, which would also decide the
            technical aspects of the laptops, negotiate the
            purchases and manage the distribution of the
            laptops.

            "Upgrading the technology used in schools has
            been in the governor's mind for several years,"
            said Tony Sprague, a spokesman for King, who
            is a known technology proponent. "Maine has a
            great work ethic and motivated work force,
            which is why companies locate here. But the
            problem was that high-tech companies who
            wanted to come here were looking for people
            with particular skills, and many [companies] decided Maine just didn't have
            them."

            King thought this problem should be attacked in schools, Sprague said, so
            the governor asked various people in the educational arena to come up
            with ideas, then combined the best of those for his proposal.

            Portable computers were actually used in schools as far back as the late
            1980s, said Tom Greaves, president of NetSchools Corp., Atlanta, Ga.,
            when they became light enough for a kid to carry around. But they didn't
            have much functionality, and they were available "more as a curiosity,"
            Greaves said.

            NetSchools was formed four years ago to promote the concept of
            one-to-one, Internet-based learning in schools. It offers schools a complete
            package, including hardware, software, Internet access, and ongoing
            training and support.

            "The state of the art today [in educational computing] is where it's
            generally accepted by school and government experts that every student
            and teacher should have their own piece of technology, with a wireless
            connection and a fully integrated suite of software that's implemented in
            [an educationally] mission-critical way," Greaves said. "And that requires a
            laptop."

            The Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL) program, which is headed in the
            United States by Microsoft Corp. and includes top computer vendors such
            as Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., expects to have at least
            1,000 schools signed up by the end of the current school year, with some
            150,000 laptops in use by students and teachers. In 1996, when the AAL
            program was first piloted, just 52 public and private schools and a total of
            6,000 students and teachers were enrolled.

            "I think we are now past the early-adopter stage in schools for this
            technology," said Jane Broom, the AAL program manager at Microsoft.
            "We recently held the fifth annual AAL summit, and it was noticeably
            different from the ones in the past. Those were preoccupied with visionary
            and motivational issues. This time around, attendees were much more
            interested in the nuts and bolts of how to make all of it happen."

            Those are issues that the Beaufort County School District in South
            Carolina, which housed one of the original AAL pilots, has already
            grappled with. In 1997, it began a program to furnish sixth graders with
            laptops. The question it initially faced was how to enable all the students to
            have access to computers since the Beaufort district includes some of the
            most expensive real estate in the country, as well as some of the poorest
            families.

            "If we asked the various families to buy computers, this would only have
            widened the digital divide," said John Williams, the Beaufort district's
            director of communications. "So the school superintendent and the
            supervisors insisted that this be a grass-roots effort. We wanted to ensure
            that all the children in the sixth grade would have the opportunity to be a
            part of this."

            The answer was to form a nonprofit organization called the Schoolbook
            Foundation that raised money to subsidize leasing laptops. Those families
            that could afford to pay for the full amount of the lease would, and the
            foundation would help pay the leases for those with children who qualified
            for subsidized or free lunches.

            Some 630 students initially signed up. In the 1999-2000 school year, about
            2,300 sixth to ninth graders used laptops.

            Melissa McFeely, a teacher in the Beaufort district's Robert Smalls Middle
            School, said she wholeheartedly embraced the concept of laptops in
            teaching when the subject was first broached, even though then she was
            not a technology-oriented person.

            "Visions of researching, composing and editing work on a laptop
            immediately went through my mind," she said. "I was determined to
            participate right from the start of the program."

            Over the four years she has used laptops in her classes, she has seen clear
            evidence that they have helped her students improve academically,
            particularly when it comes to researching and writing projects.

            "I really believe students develop into better writers with laptops," she said.
            "There's something about seeing something happening in front of them that
            gives them a better understanding of what writing is about."

            Annette Bitter, who works with sixth through 10th graders as a teacher on
            assignment for instructional technology at the Clovis Unified School
            District in Fresno, Calif., thinks laptops are a natural tool for her students,
            and that they perhaps have an even greater impact on reluctant learners.

            "For those kids who are from underprivileged homes, or who have learning
            disabilities, the laptops really do seem to make them more interested and
            attentive," she said. Bitter also trains teachers to use computers. And that
            might be one of the biggest challenges to using laptops in schools.

            "A few teachers do decide that laptops are just not something they want to
            use," Bitter said. "But I think a big majority of teachers, once they start
            using laptops, decide to stick with it. They feel they become more creative
            and more innovative in their teaching and that the laptops enable them to
            think at higher levels."

            Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in southeastern Michigan is finishing up
            the first year of a laptop pilot for sixth- and seventh-grade students, where
            some 900 children have laptops to use at school and at home. William
            Hamilton, assistant superintendent for curriculum, says the computers have
            already changed the relationship between teachers and students. Teaching
            has become much more project-based, he said, and the students cooperate
            more with each other and are more interested in producing quality work
            "because they feel they can."

            "We counted on this happening, because research elsewhere had indicated
            it should happen," Hamilton said. "But it's nevertheless a pleasant surprise
            to find that what was predicted has come true so soon."

            Voices of Dissent

            There are some outspoken critics of the laptop movement. When the
            Texas proposal first aired, Gary Chapman, former head of Computer
            Professionals for Social Responsibility and now director of the 21st
            Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the focus on
            take- anywhere, have-anytime laptops is a mistake.

            Kids who have their own computers waste a lot of time using their
            machines just as adults do, he said, and the advantages for students who
            own their own computers are not so great that those who use public-access
            computers will suffer much by comparison.

            "The laptop is just a tool like any other," he said. "People get too caught up
            with getting technology into kids' education. The fact is that the technology
            will change so much by the time the kids graduate that what they learn
            about it in school will not have much relevance to what they encounter in
            the workplace."

            In the meantime, he added, kids "will simply be caught up in the flash of
            technology."

            David Couch, commissioner of education technology for the state of
            Kentucky, is also less than enamored of laptops, though for other reasons.
            Laptops were actually included in Kentucky's technology strategy for both
            teachers and students eight years ago. The goal is still to provide every
            teacher with a laptop, but giving them to students is another matter.

            "We found that kids tended to drop them too much, and there was a
            sizable theft problem," Couch said. "At the $2,000 to $3,000 price point of
            laptops, we couldn't justify the maintenance costs. Families just don't
            understand how delicate laptops can be."

            Less than 1 percent of Kentucky students have laptops, he said. Instead,
            the state is focusing on making sure schools have adequate access to
            desktop PCs, currently targeted at a ratio of one computer to every five or
            six students.

            Educational laptops need be neither fragile nor liable to theft, proponents
            say.

            NetSchools, for example, supplies its schools with "ruggedized" laptops in
            magnesium casings, similar to the standard that the military requires. They
            are also designed to stand out as "institutional" computers that look very
            different from regular commercial systems, with serial numbers burned into
            the laptops' ROM. And all of NetSchools' computers use a system that
            requires them to be reset periodically at the school itself, otherwise the
            computers stop working, which discourages theft by other students.

            Nevertheless, concern about handing over expensive laptops to
            grade-school students is obviously one of the top issues for government. In
            Maine, for example, King's proposal received praise but also a lot of flak.

            "There was disagreement both inside and outside of the state house about
            just what the appropriate age is for kids being able to take care of mobile
            computers," said Tom Davidson, a Democratic state representative for
            Brunswick, Maine, and a strong supporter of King's views on technology.
            "Laptops were seen as much more of a privilege than something that was
            essential for education."

            For that and other reasons, King's proposal came late in the legislative
            session, and there was no time left to guide it through the process this year.
            Davidson developed a compromise proposal that he feels will give the
            legislature some vital ownership of an eventual technology plan for schools.
            There will be a $30 million set-aside in the state budget, with another sum
            of about $15 million added from the state's "lapsed balance" that will
            provide the core funds for a future technology plan. In the meantime, a
            blue-ribbon commission will conduct a study on the best use of technology
            in schools and make a report in 2001, although there is no directive that it
            come down on the side of laptops.

            It seems unlikely, given the still wide range of pro and con arguments, that
            state governments will drive much of the debate over the use of laptops in
            schools. The main effort is more likely to come at the local level, where
            practical experience is building a core of knowledge about the application
            of laptops in education.

            The problem until now has been that, although more and more schools are
            using laptops, that experience has been scattered among districts of only a
            few thousand users.

            That could change in the near future, however. In April, the New York
            City Board of Education approved a proposal that will create an
            "educational community in cyberspace" centered on a revenue-generating
            Internet portal. The plan includes providing laptops for every fourth-grade
            student and teacher beginning in 2001. The board authorized the
            development of a business plan to be delivered in September.

            Initially, some 3,100 teachers and 85,000 students will receive laptops.
            "We stressed the use of laptops because we see them as the wave of the
            future," said Victoria Streitfeld, a spokesperson for the board. "Our PC
            labs weren't being used much, and we found that if the students could get
            to take computers home, the technology would be used much more."

            If the plan goes without a hitch, New York will be the largest single user of
            laptops for schools.