Laptop Woes

Laptop Woes

Bungling the World's Easiest Sale

Forty years ago Seymour Papert began talking about a computer for every learner. In 1968, Alan Kay sketched the first personal computer as a tool for children. In 1989, Steve Costa began teaching entire classes of fifth grade girls each equipped with a laptop. In 1994, Cobb County Congressman Newt Gingrich advocated a laptop per student. Nearly a decade ago hundreds of kids at Harlem's Mott Hall schools began taking laptops to and from school. Several years ago Maine passed a law providing a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader. Books like Bob Johnstone's exhaustive history, "Never Mind the Laptops," have been published and countless research studies have been concluded.

And yet in 2005, the notion of a laptop for every student appears to be more controversial than ever. In fact, the proverbial laptop has hit the fan across the country. Shame on us!

The Cobb County, Georgia schools were well on their way to purchasing 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students when a cranky politician sued and got a judge to order an end to the initiative. The cause of the judicial intervention was an accusation of fraud. Voters approved a tax levy designed to "upgrade obsolete computer workstations," yet the judge seems to think that purchasing laptops does not represent an upgrade. This is a distinction without difference.

My experience suggests
that parents eagerly
embrace sincere efforts to
revolutionize education.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Marietta Daily Journal have featured hysterical reports on the laptop initiative for months. They smell blood and are going after district personnel for among other crimes, having been involved in the planning process and funding teacher professional development. The local press was outraged that Cobb County decided to purchase Apple iBooks instead of the Dell laptops that Henrico County, Virginia just bought for $50 less per unit.

If your educational goals consist of students making four slide PowerPoint slides about frogs to disinterested audiences or using the web to find five interesting facts about Spiro Agnew, then sure, go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest laptops. You might even ask kids to bring their PSPs to class and use those instead.

Fiscal prudence with the public purse is noble, but it is irresponsible to make computer purchases based solely on price. Not all computers are created equally. A public agency should be able to make the case that the bundled iLife creativity suite and operating system that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, "leaves Windows XP in the dust," is worth a few extra dollars per unit. A legitimate educational rationale should be able to be made for purchasing Macs if a district so chooses.

Henrico County, VA made a great contribution to educational computing five years ago when they found a way to purchase more than 20,000 iBooks without raising taxes. Since then their missteps and public pronouncements have made it more difficult for other schools to embrace 1:1 computing. As the Governor of Maine fought for his laptop legislation, Henrico was in the news for inappropriate web use and an overreaction to isolated student mischief. This led Maine and other jurisdictions to accept crippled operating systems that calm the public's fears, but create unintended consequences down the road. Disabling iTunes means no Tupac, but it also means no Martin Luther King, no Garageband music composition, no podcasting and no videoconferences with NASA scientists.

Just as Cobb County's laptop plans were hitting their stride, Henrico struck again. Their school board loudly "dumped" Apple and signed a contract with Dell for their next round of laptops. Henrico officials explained that iBooks don't have Microsoft Office on them. That's funny. Lots of other schools run Office on their iBooks? Why are school districts issuing press releases announcing their purchases? Why does anyone care? I have no idea which brand of school bus or tater-tots Henrico purchases, why are laptops different?

To complete the Apple exorcism, Henrico decided to sell the dreaded iBooks to the public for $50 each. This led to what is now known as the "iRiot" in which 17 people were trampled and four were hospitalized. CNN reported a woman soiled herself and a guy used a folding chair to beat off other shoppers. Rather than apologize, a district official suggested that the event had "entertainment value."

Whatever it says on your business card, you're in sales.

When the legislature opposed his laptop plan, Maine Governor King traveled the state leading creative laptop-based history lessons and generating popular support. He spoke of the democratization of knowledge and opportunity. When the Governor proposed that Maine become "the learning state" with a reenergized economy, he demanded that politicians support the initiative.

Whatever level of public support Cobb County's plans enjoyed, it was insufficient to ward off the opposition. The public was offered incremental gains in teacher use of computers, a modest gain in students looking up stuff on the Internet at least once a day from 20-50% and a promise that 60% of students will occasionally use brainstorming software. Textbook content would be delivered via the laptop. Woo hoo! I've got goose bumps! Where do I send my check?

Worst of all, the district lacked the courage to say that every student would be expected to use the laptop. How can someone opt-out of using the principal instrument for intellectual work, knowledge acquisition and creative expression? Can a student opt-out of using books? Express a moral objection to lectures?

Amidst the unambitious benchmarks and narrow vision, the district's FAQ just makes stuff up, such as in the case of literature instruction, "software and Internet access can provide access to nearly every published title."

I've worked with many 1:1 schools over the past fifteen years and have found it remarkably easy to justify the investment to auditoriums full of parents. It's an easy sale when you offer a vision of children learning in unprecedented ways. I share examples of at-risk students increasing attendance and engaging in sophisticated projects, sophisticated concepts being learned in ways impossible just a few years ago, enhanced creativity, more work-related social interactions and learning 24/7, not just between the bells. Images of children participating in the construction of modern knowledge as mathematicians, composers, artists, engineers, poets and scientists appeal to the hopes and dreams of parents.

We need to do a much better job of selling the dream of what computers can bring to the learning process, but first we need to create some compelling models for citizens to embrace. We'll have plenty of time to do so while we clean up the public relations mess created by the recent ham-fisted laptop implementations.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.


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