From Now On
|Vol 11|No 7|April|2002|
Some schools jumped on the laptop strategy in a big way five or ten years ago by requiring all parents to buy a laptop for every student.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
But that's a lot of money, especially for a family with 3-4 children.
And not everything worked out exactly as planned in some of these schools.
Sometimes the schools had not fully planned how the laptops would be used.
Sometimes they forgot to ask staff if they thought this was a good idea.
Sometimes they failed to set aside much money for program development or professional development.
Sometimes some of the teachers went for long periods of time without asking students to turn on their laptops.
Sometimes some of the students left laptops at home.
Sometimes the parents asked why they had invested so much money in tools that were used sporadically.
Sometimes teachers argued that new digital resources were often unreliable and of poor quality.
Sometimes bandwidth was so poor at the school, students had "virtual Internet."
Sometimes batteries would only last 90 minutes.
A Closely Held Secret
A decade after the creation of so-called laptop schools (ones where each student owns or carries an individual laptop), it is difficult to find anything but glowing reports and testimonials regarding the benefits of equipping schools in this manner.
Visit some of those schools and speak with rank-and-file teachers and the pictures projected to the outside world sometimes contrast with the images that emerge from within. At times it feels like "The Emperor's New Clothes." It is OK to whisper off the record that there have been serious issues and disappointments, but these issues and disappointments remain, typically, a closely held secret.
This silence is unfortunate because it keeps successive waves of planners in the dark by depriving them of the information that might help them launch more effective programs or select quite different strategies.
Three Years of Data from One Project
The one major exception I could find to this "dark hole" was a series of three annual reports conducted by the Beaufort County Public Schools, a district that has made a major commitment to a laptop program and has presented at national conferences advocating the benefits of all students having laptops.
To the district's credit, a substantial commitment was made to program evaluation and data gathering - a rare thing in the technology business. Again to the district's credit, the results are published for public review so that others may learn from the data.
The most recent report available for review covers the district's experience from the beginning of the project through the 1998/99 academic year. This report was released in November, 1999. It was prepared by Professor Kenneth R. Stevenson of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies at the University of South Carolina. According to Professor Stevenson, a study covering the academic year 1999/2000 was also prepared.
It was revealing to read through the early public relations documents and then review the evaluation reports over the span of the project. High hopes and declarations of achievement faded in the face of data less impressive than early hopes.
Stevenson's reports are thorough and impressive, taking many pages to review the three year experience. There are many issues and elements of these reports that deserve close reading by any school thinking of moving toward a full laptop program. At one point, for example, he reports on the major barriers perceived by teachers as blocking effective implementation of the program.
It seems evident that many teachers gave this program a serious and earnest effort but that many factors created frustration. Listed below are some of the problems reported by teachers (followed by the per cent of teachers indicating that the topic was major or overwhelming - 1st year teachers, 2nd year teachers, 3rd year teachers.)
Source: Year Three Study
TABLE 4: Teacher Assessment of Strengths and Weaknesses of Logistical and Structural Components of the Project in Year 3 - By Years of Participation in the Laptop Project
Two years ago, after attending a national conference promoting laptops for all students, this author published an article in FNO, "The New New School Thing," critiquing the exaggerated claims of technology cheerleaders. The following table was included. (See http://fno.org/apr2000/newnew.html)
Microsoft has been a key advocate of school wide laptop programs with its Anytime, Anywhere Learning initiative. See "Microsoft Demonstrates Its Vision for the Future of Education" - August, 2001.
Despite the claims of many laptop school proponents that the equipment will engender a different kind of classroom and different kind of learning, teachers in this project listed note-taking, homework assignments, writing, electronic learning activities and accessing the Internet as top choices, with cooperative learning, student research and student presentations falling much lower in the list. (Each activity is followed by the percent of teachers indicating use of the computer at least weekly for that use - 1st-year teachers, 2nd-year teachers, 3rd-year teachers.)
Source: Year Three Study
TABLE 3: Student Use of Laptops in the Classroom as Reported by Teachers - By Years of Participation in the Laptop Project
In this article, the focus is on data that should awaken concern on the part of any state or county, district or school looking for evidence of a high return on investment to result from buying lots of laptops. This kind of data has received very little attention elsewhere as the proponents of laptop schools and well funded vendors like Microsoft, Apple and Toshiba have dominated the information flow with predominantly positive visions.
That a very large county effort has reported disappointing results after three years of working with laptops is a reality that needs to be publicized more broadly so that others can learn from the experience. The negative findings have not risen to the level of general public awareness, however. The negative findings are virtually submerged.
1. In the first year, there was a huge starting achievement difference between those students who had the opportunity to use laptops and those who didn't (with laptop owners starting as much better students before owning a laptop). After three years, the project showed no statistically significant change in the achievement gap between the laptop students and the non-laptop students that could be attributed to computer ownership. While never clearly explained, it seems socioeconomically and educationally advantaged and successful students and their families found it easier to participate in the program in Year One. The performance of participants did not improve. The performance of non-participants declined, but that decline could be explained by a multitude of other factors.
At the end of Year 2, the author stated, "The project was recommended for continuation, with a suggestion that special efforts be made to involve more students from lower socioeconomic levels."
In the next year, when the district managed to greatly increase the percentage of students from lower socioeconomic levels and the achievement differences flattened. In aggregate, Professor Stevenson reports that . . .
He then proceeds to disaggregate the data . . .
At this point the waters become muddied, as he shows differences in performance associated with participation in the laptop program for various sub groups. Given the Hawthorne Effect and data showing declining enthusiasm after three years of participation, the claims in this section must be viewed with some skepticism. Superior performance by eighth graders is associated with laptops even though earlier reports showed these students starting with an advantage.
2. After three years of using laptops in class, participating eighth grade students were far from enthusiastic. Both students and teachers reported levels and types of use that are quite disappointing.
3. According to the district Web page at http://beaufort.schoolnet.com/district/Academics_Initiatives/Laptop, subsidies for purchase of laptops are no longer available. This raises serious equity issues for any district that cannot rely on federal and vendor subsidies to create an unnaturally well funded environment to test innovation.
Before launching innovations for entire districts and states, responsible leaders should review the data on previous attempts and give serious consideration to launching several different pilot programs that allow for comparisons and adjustments.
There are at least 5-6 different ways to equip a school program with computing resources. One model is to buy a laptop for every student and teacher and leave little funding for program and professional development. Another model is to buy laptops in waves, moving towards the purchase of large numbers only as teacher readiness and inclination is fully developed across the entire faculty.
It makes sense to move deliberately and with moderation. This is a time for discernment rather than plunging forward to put carts before horses.
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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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