Web posted at: 8:09 a.m. EDT (1209 GMT)
by Brian Robinson
-- 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,"
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
630 students initially signed up. In the 1999-2000 school year, about
2,300 sixth to ninth graders used laptops.
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.
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."
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.
really believe students develop into better writers with laptops," she
"There's something about seeing something happening in front of them that
gives them a better understanding of what writing is about."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
laptop is just a tool like any other," he said. "People get too caught
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 meantime, he added, kids "will simply be caught up in the flash of
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.
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."
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
laptops need be neither fragile nor liable to theft, proponents
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
the plan goes without a hitch, New York will be the largest single user
laptops for schools.