Reinventing the Slate

Reinventing the Slate

What Silicon Valley giveth, schools taketh away

In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert, a prot?g? of Jean Piaget and himself a mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer, was combining his interests by designing computing environments in which children could learn. Kay was so impressed by how children in Papert’s Logo Lab were learning meaningful mathematics that he sketched the Dynabook, a dream of portable computers yet to be fully realized, on the flight home to Xerox PARC.

Kay set out to design a portable personal computer for children on which complex ideas could come alive through the construction of simulations.

Some schools treat laptops as if they were weaponsgrade plutonium.

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an Australian PK-12 school, committed to having every student possess a personal laptop computer. By the time I began working with MLC a year later, fifth and seventh graders were required to own a laptop. The “P” in PC was taken very seriously. Personal computing would not only solve the obvious problems of student access, low levels of faculty fluency and the costs associated with the construction of computer labs—the PC would embody the wisdom of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget.

MLC Principal David Loader understood the “personal” was at the core of any efforts to make his school more learner-centered. He was not shy in his desire to radically reinvent his school. Bold new thinking, epistemological breakthroughs, sensitivity to a plurality of learning styles, increased collaboration and student self-reliance were expected outcomes of the high-tech investment.

If the computer were to play a catalytic role in this educational shift, it was obvious that the computers needed to be personal. Truly creative and intellectual work requires freedom and a respect for privacy. Quality work needs sufficient time to think, to experiment, to play. The laptop can only become an extension of the child when it is available at all times. Time and time again, the most interesting work was accomplished on the student’s time.

We were ecstatic when "laptop" students began to adorn their computers with their names written in glitter paint. This signaled success. After all, ownership is an essential element of the learning process.

A renaissance of learning and teaching catapulted MLC and the subsequent Australian “laptop” schools to the attention of school reformers around the world.

Somewhere along the line, the dreams of Kay, Papert and Loader were diluted by what Papert calls the “idea aversion” of school. Detours along the road to the Dynabook were paved by the emergence of the Internet and corporate interest in the laptop miracle.

Until the Internet, individual laptops offered a relatively low-cost, low-maintenance decentralized way to increase access to computers and rich learning opportunities. The Internet requires these machines to be tethered to centralized servers and an educational bureaucracy pleased with its newfound control. Computing costs soared, data, children and jobs needed to be protected. The needs of the many often trumped the ideals of the personal.

Even as districts and states embrace laptops, the child-centered vision of computing becomes a fading memory. Maine provided every seventh and eighth grader with an iBook, yet far too few kids are allowed to take their laptops home.

Other districts have procured laptops to nurse hairbrained sci-fi fantasies of delivering instruction and monitoring student achievement by the nano-second.


Kids are no longer trusted to use their laptops in constructive ways, in part due to a lack of models of creative computing. School iBooks routinely come with an irrevocable prohibition on MP3 files and file downloads are verboten. iTunes, Apple?s audio software is blocked on student machines despite it being an integral part of iMovie, iPhoto and iDVD. In other words, student multimedia projects must be silent since some misguided adults equate MP3s with Napster, limited bandwidth and the Axis of Evil.

School laptops are not backpack ballast. They can revolutionize education. Imagine what we might all learn if we trust children and keep computing personal.

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.