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Laptops in Adolescence

Growing pains and disappointing the elders

Marketing guru Guy Kawasaski teaches us not to be concerned when others begin to pervert your innovation. That is evidence that your idea has taken root. It may even produce benefits you never imagined.

When I look at the implementation of student laptops in American schools I take a deep breath and hope Kawasaki is correct. My cautious optimism is based on recent observations of how educators are thinking about laptops these days. The rationale behind the investment and objectives could not be more alien from those we had when we first gave students laptops 16 years ago.

Back then the goals were student empowerment and challenging every school convention-curriculum, assessment, scheduling, mission-even architecture. The laptop allowed students to immerse themselves in authentic projects that connected disciplines, required substantial time and were fueled by the power of computer programming. Today, lots of reasons are used to justify 1:1 computing, many antithetical to our original vision. The imagination machine has turned into the accountability machine.

The imagination machine has turned into the accountability machine.

At the expense of sounding like an old geezer reminiscing about the good ole days when we didn't even have hard drives in our laptops, allow me to provide concrete examples of where we may have been distracted or taken dangerous detours on Route 1:1.

Three kinds of laptop schools

For years I have observed three types of schools that embrace 1:1 computing for students.

1) The pioneers: progressive educators committed to revolutionizing the learning environment

2) The marketers: school leaders desirous of getting their photo in the newspaper

3) Their neighbors: as in real life, neighbors can be pesky, annoying and wreck things for everyone else. Regardless of why the school next door got laptops, you're likely to be next. These schools often have very sketchy reasons for doing what they do, including their vision of technology use.

It is natural for the neighbors to represent the largest group of schools embracing 1:1. Without focused leadership and a commitment to reflective practice, many of the pioneers may even take on the confused attributes of the neighbors.

When reporters call

Since I have such a long history of working with laptops in education newspaper reporters often call me. The conversation routinely begins with the reporter announcing to me that Miffy Middle School in nearby Bandspork is the first school to purchase a laptop for every student. I giggle and inform the caller that lots of schools have laptops and have for some time.

The startled scribe then asks, "Do you mean there are other laptop schools?" This strikes me as funny since the reporter obviously knew how to use Google well enough to find me.

The next question is, "Should the laptops go home?" This questionable was unthinkable until recently. Of course the laptops should go home! The P in PC stands for personal. The entire point of having portable computers was so students could use them to learn, collaborate and work anytime anywhere. The digital divide may only be closed when kids have consistent access to equivalent technology. The benefits to the learner and her family have been demonstrated consistently.

And the politicians shall lead?

Former Maine Gov. Angus King, the patron saint of laptops in public schools, made a deal with the devil when he allowed local schools to decide if student laptops could go home. King said he had no choice at the time if his laptop initiative was to go forward. The result is that four years later approximately half of Maine's 7th and 8th graders are cheated when they must leave their laptops at school.

Since Maine, many states have developed interest in 1:1 computing. Not long ago, I saw Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on The Charlie Rose Show. I am a longtime admirer of Rendell's leadership, intellect and no-nonsense style. However, his recent interest in laptops contains plenty of nonsense. Rendell told the audience how we are losing our competitive edge to other nations and that we must do something to improve our schools. One suggestion was that when a kid in Pennsylvania walks into a science classroom there should be a laptop on the desk. When they walk into an English classroom there should be a laptop on the desk... The same went for history and math.

My dumbfoundedness led to a really innovative plan. I yelled at the TV, "Hey Governor! How about you buy every kid in Pennsylvania two desks? Some countries can't even afford one desk per student. We can clobber them in the desk race." The power of the laptops lies in its portability. Why tether portable computers to furniture?

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently proposed a bold new plan to provide teachers with a personal laptop computer. There was breathless support for this proposal in the edtech press. Big deal! What's next? Desks for teachers? Use of the telephone? Free copier paper? Why are teachers the last professionals to be blessed with such largesse by their employer?

The ACLU entered the fray by suing the Fullerton (Calif.) School District for proposing 1:1 computing in a public context. Where is the ACLU when parents are asked to pay for Kleenex and music education or when teachers are harassed for opposing standardized testing?

Perhaps I go to too many conferences

1:1 is all the range at conferences. The shortest path to instant expertise and keynoting major conferences is to sign a purchase order for a large number of laptops. In fact, it may be good enough to announce that you're thinking of making a purchase.

I attended one session recently in which a school district, supported by a major corporation, was speaking about their plans to get laptops.

After fabulous PowerPoint slides detailing how the world is flat, today's kindergarteners will graduate in 2018, India is graduating lots of engineers and "we bought SmartBoards," the presenter really caught my attention. I could not believe my ears when the district representative proclaimed that after the enormous investment in laptops and professional development they won't change anything in how education is delivered.

Whoa! Hold the phone! Why would you make such an investment of human and financial capital and expect no differences in practice?

Some major laptop initiatives have bought little or no software. They are at the mercy of what comes on the machine. One could conclude that only the humanities are taught since all the computers can do is support reading, writing and information presentation. What would education look like if "iMath" were invented and did for the construction of mathematical and scientific knowledge what iLife has done for storytelling? The first laptop schools used LogoWriter or MicroWorlds as their cross-discipline laboratory, but schools now seem satisfied with mediocre PowerPoint presentations nobody will ever watch.


Laptops are increasingly affordable and would be even less expensive if governments decided to buy a million or more of them. If a school system can genuinely not afford a full function laptop per student, then they shouldn't make the mistake of buying inexpensive substitutes capable of little more than note taking and multiple-choice quizzes. Save your pennies for real computers or wait until the kids bring their own to school. Scarce funds would be much better spent on high-interest children's literature, Cuisenaire Rods or playground balls-all victims of the same misguided budget priorities that make 1:1 seem like a fantasy.

People who ask if there is evidence to support personal computing in education are disingenuous. They never ask if there is evidence for spelling tests or if paint makes good art. They are not interested in being persuaded.

The question should not be if a state's test scores have increased since laptops arrived. The schools should be so demonstrably more interesting that it never occurs to anyone to look for such a low-level metric as test scores.

The Anytime Anywhere Learning Conference

I am one of the keynote speakers, along with Gov. King, John Bransford, Ben Schneiderman and leading practitioners at the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation's First Annual Conference this June 21-23 in Boston. District Administration is the exclusive media partner for the event. For registration info go to: