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Laptops for Learning...Freedom at a Price

October 2001

Irvine, CA-- Laptops for every teacher in Michigan; laptops replace textbooks at St. Petersburg College in Florida; laptops for every 7th and 8th grader in Maine, for every 3rd through 5th grader at a California elementary school. School district administrators and government leaders across the country are betting their technology budgets that laptop computers will improve reading and learning for students of all ages.

The Difference a Notebook Makes
Assuming that computers in general make a difference by providing access to information and communication tools to build basic skills, then what special advantage do laptops offer? Designed for mobility, they can be pulled out and connected to a wireless network or tucked away for reading time or non-computer activities. Students and teachers can carry their personal machine to access learning in classrooms, the library, on the school bus, or at home. Successful laptop programs have had surprisingly few problems with loss or theft, because the students take great care of their personal machines.

Are laptops the future of educational technology? According to Tom Healey, National Education Programs Manager with Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc., and former teacher: "If I were teaching in the "perfect" classroom today, I would want every child to have both a personal computer, a handheld computing device, and have my campus fully networked with a robust intranet and fulltime Internet access. It's the ultimate 3 legged stool." See http://www.education.toshiba.com.

As an ultra lightweight portable, a handheld has longer battery life, but data input and manipulation are limited. Full-functioning notebooks offer more software tools and features to manipulate data, store information, and access multimedia content. Combined with network access to local and worldwide resources, these tools give students and teachers freedom, flexibility, and access to engage in learning.

Personal Ownership
In his personal account of using computers and teaching with laptops, Gary Stager, an educator and consultant, emphasizes providing children with tools that let them explore and create to learn. (See http://www.stager.org/articles/laptopbookchapter.html#Anchor-Laptops-49575) He writes: "From Sydney to Harlem, the sheer act of entrusting a young person with a laptop computer communicates to that person that you value her as a valuable member of society and welcome her to the world of serious intellectual pursuits."

A study on laptop programs by Rockman Et. Al. published in June 2000 shows that while most students have access to computers at school and at home, students with laptops have greater individual access and they "show deeper and more flexible uses of technology."

Real Impact
For several years Microsoft, Toshiba, and other partners have promoted a laptop learning program and tracked the progress of students to see how technology helps and, in particular, the difference personal ownership of a portable tool makes. Independent research and evaluations have found that proper utilization of the tool in the school and at home does make a significant difference, and has a positive effect on test scores.

The Rockman study, sponsored by Microsoft, showed that students with laptops performed better on writing assessments and had more confidence with technology than those without laptops. Comparing learning strategies, the study found that gaps between laptop and non-laptop students were stark when compared to external sites, but within the same school, the gaps narrowed over the three-year study: "Students within the same school may be growing more similar as time passes, perhaps due to a sharing of resources, pedagogical approaches, or school philosophies." http://rockman.com/projects/laptop/.

The Price of Convenience
The price of a laptop is prohibitive in many school districts and communities, and the costs keep coming in terms of maintenance, technical support, and infrastructure. Laptops need to be replaced more often and are more fragile than other computing alternatives. While some parents and communities can afford laptops, how can school districts meet the needs of all students?

Cart solutions solve the flexibility issue by bringing laptops into a classroom when needed, but they do not provide personal ownership. By encouraging parents who can afford laptops to buy them, a school could have more resources to subsidize technology for other students. Other concerns include the ergonomics of carrying and using laptops; property security and appropriate use; and maintenance and support for the personalized devices.

Working It Out with Vision and Planning
Like most educational technology programs, the key to success seems to be vision and planning combined with the flexibility to adapt policies to address issues as they come up. Successful programs set up technical service centers, have policies on re-imaging computers, and point parents to insurance options. They work with parents, teachers, and children to address the care and appropriate use of the machines.

The class schedule at Mott Hall School in Harlem doesn't require students to carry computers back and forth to school every day. Mondays and Tuesdays are computer free; Wednesdays are group projects and students rotate their machines; Thursdays and Fridays are computer days.

Like most educational technology innovations, a school has to be prepared for the challenge. According to Healey: "A school must have a technology and learning vision that incorporates the use of personal devices. If they are not looking to embrace or understand the value, it's probably not a good fit for the personal ownership model."