- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

According to Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, “Laptops are the textbooks of tomorrow.”

Easily accessible, anything related to school could be stored in one convenient location, thereby eliminating the homework hotline, carrying books back and forth and rendering obsolete any excuse for missing assignments. Class notes could be posted online, videos streamed, and a plethora of approved links to more in depth information would be accessible. Supplemental information could be provided on topics that struggling students don’t fully grasp, or for gifted students who want to challenge themselves. Education in the 21st century would render assignment notebooks archaic, copying worksheets unnecessary. Important papers could be backed up on flash drives to ensure against possible loss. Substitute teachers could access detailed notes on what is to be covered in class so that critical instructional time is used to its fullest potential.

Unable to fathom writing or researching without a personal computer, there’s no telling how many hours I save instantly accessing news from all over the world, experts in a plethora of fields, or being an e-mail away from colleagues. Likeminded, Dr. Mark Edwards, superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools, doesn’t mince words: “We don’t think technology will ever replace teachers. But teachers who can use the technology will replace those who can’t use it because it’s here to stay.” Teachers, uncomfortable with computers and hesitant to change established routines and practices, need only step out of their comfort zone and learn the PC to gain an appreciation for the many advantages, which outweigh any disadvantages.

Concerns about instant messaging and playing games, computers getting lost or breaking, or ideological repercussions, are justified. United Nations Educational, Cultural, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Microsoft are cooperating to create resources “to support the development of curricula for teachers and training courses on the use of Information Computer Technology in classrooms.” These prefab curricula have the potential to cultivate UNESCO educational goals, “culturally neutral universal values to which all people aspire.” Those concerned multiculturalism is replacing traditional learning goals of understanding and love for our country, its historical figures and practices may have their work cut out for them.

Unexpected problems surface in schools implementing laptop use without a well thought-out action plan. These include not consulting staff in deciding ways laptops should be implemented; failure to set aside money for program or professional development; classes in which teachers rarely ask students to turn on their laptops; the necessity for students to transport laptops between home and school; investment in tools only being used sporadically; digital resources of unreliable or poor quality; poor bandwidth; or batteries that only last 90 minutes.

According to Vicki Wilson, Henrico County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for curriculum, “New students and parents need a tremendous amount of training to understand the technology and be able to use it. It also has to be differentiated, because teachers, students and parents are all at different places with their technology skills.”

Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia discovered that security is an issue. Some 50-60 students were disciplined for downloading pornography at home, and two students were suspended for trying to hack into the computers of teachers and classmates. This can be resolved by “scrubbing” hard drives and placing restrictions that prevent instant messaging and limit file-sharing.

According to Ludger Woessmann, a researcher at the University of Munich, “If you overuse computers and trade them for other [types of] teaching, it actually harms the student.” Dr. Marcia Linn, professor of education and director of the Technology Enhanced Learning in Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, says, “People need guidance in how to use [computers in education].”

A Henrico County press release stated that students taking part in a laptop initiative for grades 6-12 achieved the highest SAT verbal and math scores ever recorded in the county.

A study by the Mitchell Institute determined Piscataquis Community High School’s laptop program improved the quality of work and student achievement, boosted computer skills, increased access to educational resources, elevated student motivation and interest in school, and enhanced student-teacher interaction. Mostly helping at-risk and low-achieving students, it prepared all students for higher-level learning. Interestingly, daily student attendance increased from 91 percent to 98 percent and discipline referrals declined by 45 percent during the first year of implementation. Some average students became high-achievers and behavior disorder students became more focused. Laptops provided opportunities for social contact to those who otherwise might not reach out. Students wrote more, preferring typing to handwriting, and access to spelling and grammar check gave them more confidence. Grades improved.

Jeff Herbel, Oklahoma City’s information technology project leader, argues for purchasing laptops because, “Going to the lab interrupts class schedules, and it takes students and teachers out of the classroom.”

There are a plethora of good reasons to implement laptop programs in schools. By learning from past mistakes, potential pitfalls can be avoided. Still, it is up to each school district to decide exactly how to use available technology. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.

NANCY SALVATO

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country.

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