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Supervisors Opinion

Are One-to-One Laptop Programs Worth the Investment?

Administrators are learning that a successful program requires more than financing.

I opened the doors of a brand new, state-of-the-art K8 school in Orange County, Calif., in September 2003. As principal, I spearheaded an initiative to place as many laptop computers in the hands of students in grades 3-8 as possible. The goal was to prepare these students for a technology-driven world in which innovation, creativity, autonomy, and individual and group research was prized along with the traditional accumulation of knowledge. The idea was to help them to become problem-solvers who could use an ever-expanding and ever-changing base of knowledge to apply learning in task-oriented scenarios. These are the skills prized by the U.S. economy.

We did not have the funding to provide a computer for every student. California did not embrace this concept, as other states have done, and now does not have the resources, given the current state of school finances. Instead, the school provided as many computers as possible, up to five per classroom, and a number of roving laptop labs. The gap was filled by parents in a voluntary program in which students brought a laptop from home to use in class.

Within two years, about 60 percent of students had brought a laptop from home to use at school. With an instructional focus on project-type group learning, students were using computers during day-to-day instruction and learning in a one-to-one computer environment. For example, seventh-grade science students conducted Internet research and made PowerPoint presentations and iMovies on the genetic components of Parkinson’s disease, ADHD , and other conditions. Students were motivated and engaged, and deep learning was taking place.

As a site administrator, I was faced with a broad array of challenges, many unique to a school that had to convince teachers and parents that learning with laptops was a viable and effective way to improve learning and instruction. Today these challenges have been amplified on two fronts, namely, spotty implementation of laptop programs in general and the attendant diminishing of support from teachers and parents, and a lack of hard data on the efficacy of the programs. With the substantial outlay of capital involved in these programs, policy makers are taking a harder look at laptop programs.

No Effect on Test Scores

When I first became involved in this project, the press for one-to-one computing was overwhelmingly positive. The initiative was often a matter of policy from state or district leaders hoping to prepare students for an information-driven global economy. It was in essence a way to keep America competitive. Almost six years later, the tide has turned. A New York Times article from May 4, 2007, entitled “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops” quoted policy makers as follows: “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.” Additionally, parents were frustrated that their children were spending too much time on video games. In other words, policy and theory did not pan out in practice, as teachers, students, and parents expressed pretty typical concerns with one-to-one laptop programs in actual classrooms.

The lack of data on the effect of laptop programs on standardized test scores is a significant Achilles heel. Simply stated, in my experience, laptop programs do not have a direct bearing on standardized test scores. This is borne out by research, scarce though it may be. For example, in a summary of the first-year implementation of the laptop program in Fullerton, Calif., researchers concluded that “students in the laptop program improved in test scores from the prior year at about the same rate as other students in the district.” In other words, laptop programs do not raise test scores. As the pressure for achievement increases as No Child Left Behind pushes school systems to 100 percent student proficiency by 2014, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify expenditures that do not have an impact on the bottom line of improving student achievement, at least as it is measured on state accountability systems.

Advocates for learning with laptops would say that you can’t measure effectiveness with traditional measures of student performance, as it’s a mismatch in skill sets. In fact, I often told parents if you ask how laptops improve test scores, you are asking the wrong question. However, laptop programs have yet to come up with a way to measure efficacy, and principals and schools are evaluated on standardized test scores. In fact, if your goal as an administrator is to raise test scores with laptops alone, you will likely fail.

As a further blow, research from the U.S. Department of Education published in 2007 on the effectiveness of reading and math software concluded that there was no measurable difference between the use of software and traditional methods.

What does this mean for implementing a one-to-one laptop program, especially in today’s climate of increased accountability and diminishing resources? It depends upon the circumstances of individual schools.

If you are in program improvement or close to program improvement under NCLB, laptop programs will not help you to raise the basic skills of students. You don’t have the time to wait to see if the program will work; you need results now. If your school has good test scores, has effectively implemented research-based instructional methods in reading and math, and has a supportive local community, however, a laptop program may help you to get to the next level.

The Need for Leadership

If you are considering implementing or continuing a laptop program, it is important to recognize the importance of the site administrator in the process and the pressures that he or she will face. The principal will always have to justify the program with data, so an effective monitoring program will have to be established. This is traditionally an area where laptop programs have fallen down. In the absence of compelling data from the school, it makes it all the harder to resist the pressure from the story that standardized test scores tell.

Laptop programs have to support the standards that students are expected to master.

In a policy brief from Andrew Zucker, senior research scientist at the Concord Consortium, entitled “One-to-One Computing Evaluation Consortium,” published in November 2005, Bette Manchester states, “There needs to be a leadership team that looks at things through three different lenses: the lens of curriculum and content; the lens of the culture of the building; and the lens of technical needs.” I believe this is an effective organizational framework with which to plan, implement, and evaluate a one-to-one laptop program.

Curriculum and Content

Too often, instructional fads, in which laptop programs are sometimes included, forget to focus on the area of curriculum and content. Whatever the instructional practice, it must support the intended curriculum. One of the key components to improving student learning is to clearly identify what it is that students are expected to learn. Laptop programs have to support the standards that students are expected to master. Therefore, the focus should be on learning content standards. Schools may add goals in problem solving and critical thinking, but these must be pursued using instructional practices that are grounded in the content standards.

Laptop computers can be one important element in an instructional approach that can meet these standards as well as goals like innovation, creativity, and research. For example, if a grade level team identifies the key content or power standards for a learning unit, develops a set of essential questions that guide learning and assessment, and then uses laptops as one part of the instructional program, students will make progress that can be measured on standardized tests while acquiring the skills needed for the workplace of the future.

A Culture for All Stakeholders

Site administrators, with their leadership teams, must create a culture that is receptive to the use of laptop computers as learning tools. In addition, they must address the needs and interests of the key stakeholders in the learning community.

Students: Parents often say that their kids seem to spend an awful lot of time playing games or doing other nonacademic activities on their laptops. Therefore, at each school, it is important to establish clear guidelines for the use of laptops by students during classroom time. These expectations must be taught explicitly and reinforced positively as part of the normal process for establishing expected behaviors in all areas of school life. Students take to technology like ducks to water and have never known a world without the Internet. Learning with computers is natural for them; you just have to guide it to positive outcomes, an important ancillary goal of laptop programs in itself.

Teachers: It is difficult for teachers to change practices without extensive and ongoing staff development in the area of technology. This has two components: It is important to establish a baseline of proficiency with the technology itself. However, this is secondary to helping teachers to use laptops as instructional tools. If teachers do not actively plan for the use of laptops in the classroom, students will not bring them to class. The principal has to plan for ongoing training that mixes direct instruction, mentoring and coaching, and the sharing of best practices. This can only be achieved if the school has built staff development into the weekly schedule at the school. One-time or sporadic in-services will not work; the push has to be constant, with clearly stated expectations for the use of technology as a learning tool. Fortunately, new textbook adoptions have strong online components with support provided by the publishers, and this will encourage teachers to tread further into the waters of technology and learning.

Parents: It is important to educate parents on the goals of the laptop program and to describe for them how students and teachers will use laptops, how learning will take place, and how the school will evaluate the success of the program. It is also important to identify potential pitfalls, like inappropriate student use of the Internet, for example, and to explain how the school will address them. This was critically important in my case, as I had the added pressure of having to justify the program for parents who purchased laptops for their children to bring to school. There will be rocky moments as parents have to put their own money on the line to buy laptops, purchase low-cost leases, or upgrade or repair computers. Many laptop schools have parent education nights to show how children will use the computers. Further education should include teaching parents how to use some of the software used in the program and how to solve problems and address basic computer glitches related to Internet access and printing documents.

Community: It is vital to establish business partnerships to build support for the laptop program. This can bring additional resources and good word of mouth about your program. At my school, we entered into a partnership with the local Apple Store. Our program grew over time to be mutually beneficial: Parents bought computers at the store, and Apple employees loaded the standard software needed for the school program as part of the purchase.

Technical Needs

Those planning a laptop program tend to focus on this area first. While it is important to iron out technical bugs, it is less important long term than integrating technology into the curriculum and school culture. Still, to keep the laptop program running efficiently, observe these 10 key steps:

1. Standardize a computer operating system/platform—Apple, Microsoft, or open source. This is critical, as it is easier to keep one platform running than two. This is easier to achieve if schools provide the laptop computers. However, whether laptops are provided by the school, parents, or a mixture of both, the principal will experience significant pressure to allow all and any laptops into the program. The resources of your computer network and the extent of your technical support will determine your answer.

2. Decide upon a standard set of software tools that will be consistent across the school. This will help teachers spend their time teaching content, not software applications. At my school, we developed an image that included standard software suites and protocols for logging on to the network and printing.

3. Identify research-based software that can support learning in math and reading. It is critical that this software be compatible with the operating system on student laptops and be able to be supported by technical staff .

4. Decide how much access students will have to the network. For example, will they be able to print to any computer in the school? Will student files be shared centrally on a server, or should students save files to their individual laptops or USB drives? Will students have access to the school server from home?

5. Decide how you will handle the inevitable upgrades to operating systems, as well as computers that use different versions of the operating systems.

6. Plan for obsolescence of software and hardware. It is critical to have a plan to replace or update computers and software as they age. This plan should include the development of a way to assign financial and technical resources.

7. Develop a plan to repair and replace broken laptops, batteries and printers. It is the small details that can scupper thebest lessons. How will you replace damaged keyboards, missing keys, broken monitors, flat batteries, damaged or missing cables, etc.? Plan on additional printer expenses. These items are a constant drain on the school budget.

8. Provide other technology to supplement the laptop program, including presentation devices such as LCD projectors.

9. Plan for a robust network. You must assume that all computers will be on the network at the same time.

10. Most important, have on-site technical support. A lack of support will be the biggest gripe of teachers and will negatively impact the learning program.

Computers will continue to offer enticing opportunities for learning in our classrooms. The concept of “right now” learning is particularly powerful, as students find information as they need or request it. As computers decline in price and improve in functionality, laptop programs will continue to deliver on the promise of “anywhere, anytime learning.” Our students will certainly enter a workplace that will be unrecognizable to us, and we will need to equip them with the skills to embrace and manage change in how information is produced, delivered and received. In the end, the key elements in a laptop program at school will continue to be the teacherstudent relationship and the integration of technology, curriculum content, and school culture.

Eamonn O’Donovan is assistant superintendent of special education services in Capistrano Unified School District in California.