Portable learning

This past spring, when Maine Gov. Angus King announced a plan to provide

every seventh-grade student in his state with a laptop computer, he dramatically

highlighted a national trend that has been gaining momentum.

To have computers make a real difference in education, the argument

goes, their use has to be made more personal and a part of the daily learning

experience. And the best way to do that, proponents say, is to put laptops

in the hands of teachers and students.

Laptops, they contend, enhance students' problem-solving abilities,

boost their interest in learning, improve their writing skills and give

teachers the time for more one-on-one interaction with students than they

would have in a "normal" classroom setting. And, since laptops can be taken

home, they also increase students' motivation to tackle and complete homework

assignments.

"Schools have been abandoning the concept of PC labs for some time now,"

said Cheryl Williams, director of education technology programs at the National

School Boards Association. "They are opting more for taking the computers

into the classrooms themselves, where the kids are."

Interest in using laptops like this has always been there, she said, but

until recently it's been difficult to see just how to integrate them into

lessons.

But not everyone is so gung-ho.

Administrators have raised questions about possible security problems

with laptops, such as theft or misplacement. And the cost of laptops, which

is substantially more than equivalent stand-alone PCs, has proved a major

barrier.

Although laptop programs at individual schools and school districts

have been in place for a number of years, so far there have been few detailed

proposals beyond the local level. The Texas State Board of Education championed

a proposal several years ago to replace the state's school textbooks with

laptop computers and CD-ROMs, but it never drew serious interest from the

state legislature.

The Maine laptop proposal so far is the only one to come from the top levels

of state government, although that wasn't enough to protect it from a damaging

barrage of opposition from other lawmakers who say the state would be wiser

investing its education money differently.

The funding was to come through an endowment fund established from a

one-time $50 million appropriation from the unallocated state surplus, with

federal or private sources chipping in another $15 million. Proceeds from

the fund would have been administered by a public/private foundation, which

would also decide the technical aspects of the laptops, negotiate the purchases

and manage the distribution of the laptops.

"Upgrading the technology used in schools has been in the governor's

mind for several years," said Tony Sprague, a spokesman for King, who is

a known technology proponent. "Maine has a great work ethic and motivated

work force, which is why companies locate here. But the problem was that

high-tech companies who wanted to come here were looking for people with

particular skills, and many [companies] decided Maine just didn't have them."

King thought this problem should be attacked in schools, Sprague said,

so the governor asked various people in the educational arena to come up

with ideas, then combined the best of those for his proposal.

Portable computers were actually used in schools as far back as the

late 1980s, said Tom Greaves, president of NetSchools Corp., Atlanta, Ga.,

when they became light enough for a kid to carry around. But they didn't

have much functionality, and they were available "more as a curiosity,"

Greaves said.

NetSchools was formed four years ago to promote the concept of one-to-one,

Internet-based learning in schools. It offers schools a complete package,

including hardware, software, Internet access, and ongoing training and

support.

"The state of the art today [in educational computing] is where it's generally

accepted by school and government experts that every student and teacher

should have their own piece of technology, with a wireless connection and

a fully integrated suite of software that's implemented in [an educationally]

mission-critical way," Greaves said. "And that requires a laptop."

The Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL) program, which is headed in the

United States by Microsoft Corp. and includes top computer vendors such

as Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., expects to have at least 1,000

schools signed up by the end of the current school year, with some 150,000

laptops in use by students and teachers. In 1996, when the AAL program was

first piloted, just 52 public and private schools and a total of 6,000 students

and teachers were enrolled.

"I think we are now past the early-adopter stage in schools for this

technology," said Jane Broom, the AAL program manager at Microsoft. "We

recently held the fifth annual AAL summit, and it was noticeably different

from the ones in the past. Those were preoccupied with visionary and motivational

issues. This time around, attendees were much more interested in the nuts

and bolts of how to make all of it happen."

Those are issues that the Beaufort County School District in South Carolina,

which housed one of the original AAL pilots, has already grappled with.

In 1997, it began a program to furnish sixth graders with laptops. The question

it initially faced was how to enable all the students to have access to

computers since the Beaufort district includes some of the most expensive

real estate in the country, as well as some of the poorest families.

"If we asked the various families to buy computers, this would only

have widened the digital divide," said John Williams, the Beaufort district's

director of communications. "So the school superintendent and the supervisors

insisted that this be a grass-roots effort. We wanted to ensure that all

the children in the sixth grade would have the opportunity to be a part

of this."

The answer was to form a nonprofit organization called the Schoolbook

Foundation that raised money to subsidize leasing laptops. Those families

that could afford to pay for the full amount of the lease would, and the

foundation would help pay the leases for those with children who qualified

for subsidized or free lunches.

Some 630 students initially signed up. In the 1999-2000 school year,

about 2,300 sixth to ninth graders used laptops.

Melissa McFeely, a teacher in the Beaufort district's Robert Smalls

Middle School, said she wholeheartedly embraced the concept of laptops in

teaching when the subject was first broached, even though then she was not

a technology-oriented person.

"Visions of researching, composing and editing work on a laptop immediately

went through my mind," she said. "I was determined to participate right

from the start of the program."

Over the four years she has used laptops in her classes, she has seen

clear evidence that they have helped her students improve academically,

particularly when it comes to researching and writing projects.

"I really believe students develop into better writers with laptops,"

she said. "There's something about seeing something happening in front of

them that gives them a better understanding of what writing is about."

Annette Bitter, who works with sixth through 10th graders as a teacher

on assignment for instructional technology at the Clovis Unified School

District in Fresno, Calif., thinks laptops are a natural tool for her students,

and that they perhaps have an even greater impact on reluctant learners.

"For those kids who are from underprivileged homes, or who have learning

disabilities, the laptops really do seem to make them more interested and

attentive," she said.

Bitter also trains teachers to use computers. And that might be one of the

biggest challenges to using laptops in schools.

"A few teachers do decide that laptops are just not something they want

to use," Bitter said. "But I think a big majority of teachers, once they

start using laptops, decide to stick with it. They feel they become more

creative and more innovative in their teaching and that the laptops enable

them to think at higher levels."

Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in southeastern Michigan is finishing

up the first year of a laptop pilot for sixth- and seventh-grade students,

where some 900 children have laptops to use at school and at home. William

Hamilton, assistant superintendent for curriculum, says the computers have

already changed the relationship between teachers and students. Teaching

has become much more project-based, he said, and the students cooperate

more with each other and are more interested in producing quality work "because

they feel they can."

"We counted on this happening, because research elsewhere had indicated

it should happen," Hamilton said. "But it's nevertheless a pleasant surprise

to find that what was predicted has come true so soon."

Voices of Dissent

There are some outspoken critics of the laptop movement. When the Texas

proposal first aired, Gary Chapman, former head of Computer Professionals

for Social Responsibility and now director of the 21st Century Project at

the University of Texas at Austin, said the focus on take- anywhere, have-anytime

laptops is a mistake.

Kids who have their own computers waste a lot of time using their machines

just as adults do, he said, and the advantages for students who own their

own computers are not so great that those who use public-access computers

will suffer much by comparison.

"The laptop is just a tool like any other," he said. "People get too

caught up with getting technology into kids' education. The fact is that

the technology will change so much by the time the kids graduate that what

they learn about it in school will not have much relevance to what they

encounter in the workplace."

In the meantime, he added, kids "will simply be caught up in the flash

of technology."

David Couch, commissioner of education technology for the state of Kentucky,

is also less than enamored of laptops, though for other reasons. Laptops

were actually included in Kentucky's technology strategy for both teachers

and students eight years ago. The goal is still to provide every teacher

with a laptop, but giving them to students is another matter.

"We found that kids tended to drop them too much, and there was a sizable

theft problem," Couch said. "At the $2,000 to $3,000 price point of laptops,

we couldn't justify the maintenance costs. Families just don't understand

how delicate laptops can be."

Less than 1 percent of Kentucky students have laptops, he said. Instead,

the state is focusing on making sure schools have adequate access to desktop

PCs, currently targeted at a ratio of one computer to every five or six

students.

Educational laptops need be neither fragile nor liable to theft, proponents

say.

NetSchools, for example, supplies its schools with "ruggedized" laptops

in magnesium casings, similar to the standard that the military requires.

They are also designed to stand out as "institutional" computers that look

very different from regular commercial systems, with serial numbers burned

into the laptops' ROM. And all of NetSchools' computers use a system that

requires them to be reset periodically at the school itself, otherwise the

computers stop working, which discourages theft by other students.

Nevertheless, concern about handing over expensive laptops to grade-school

students is obviously one of the top issues for government. In Maine, for

example, King's proposal received praise but also a lot of flak.

"There was disagreement both inside and outside of the state house about

just what the appropriate age is for kids being able to take care of mobile

computers," said Tom Davidson, a Democratic state representative for Brunswick,

Maine, and a strong supporter of King's views on technology. "Laptops were

seen as much more of a privilege than something that was essential for education."

For that and other reasons, King's proposal came late in the legislative

session, and there was no time left to guide it through the process this

year. Davidson developed a compromise proposal that he feels will give the

legislature some vital ownership of an eventual technology plan for schools.

There will be a $30 million set-aside in the state budget, with another

sum of about $15 million added from the state's "lapsed balance" that will

provide the core funds for a future technology plan. In the meantime, a

blue-ribbon commission will conduct a study on the best use of technology

in schools and make a report in 2001, although there is no directive that

it come down on the side of laptops.

It seems unlikely, given the still wide range of pro and con arguments,

that state governments will drive much of the debate over the use of laptops

in schools. The main effort is more likely to come at the local level,

where practical experience is building a core of knowledge about the application

of laptops in education.

The problem until now has been that, although more and more schools

are using laptops, that experience has been scattered among districts of

only a few thousand users.

That could change in the near future, however. In April, the New York City

Board of Education approved a proposal that will create an "educational

community in cyberspace" centered on a revenue-generating Internet portal.

The plan includes providing laptops for every fourth-grade student and teacher

beginning in 2001. The board authorized the development of a business plan

to be delivered in September.

Initially, some 3,100 teachers and 85,000 students will receive laptops.

"We stressed the use of laptops because we see them as the wave of the future,"

said Victoria Streitfeld, a spokesperson for the board. "Our PC labs weren't

being used much, and we found that if the students could get to take computers

home, the technology would be used much more."

If the plan goes without a hitch, New York will be the largest single

user of laptops for schools.

— Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

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