Schools Scrap Laptop Initiatives…

In yet another blow to my hopes that extensive technology will ever become a common in the majority of America’s classrooms, the New York Times published an article last week on several school districts that are backing out of one-to-one laptop initiatives because their efforts are costly and haven’t had the broad impact expected when adopted. 

As Mark Lawson, school board president in Liverpool, New York, said, “After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none.” This, echoes Tim Bullis, district spokesperson in Richmond Virgina, is unacceptable: "You have to put your money where you think it’s going to give you the best achievement results."

And while I’ve never been a big believer in investing in a laptop for every child for financial reasons—maintenance figures alone are simply staggering and models end up out of date too quickly—these programs didn’t fail because of finances. They failed because people believed that machines are magical elixirs and overlooked the role that teachers continue to play in student learning. 

Consider the following misguided quotes:

Everett A. Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa, Calif., where more than 95 percent of students are Hispanic and come from low-income families, gave away 30 new laptops to another school in 2005 after a class that was trying them out switched to new teachers who simply did not do as much with the technology.

With the exception of the growing number of "millenials" working in our nation’s classrooms, most teachers simply don’t do much with technology. The answer isn’t to give your machines away—the answer is to provide teachers with systematic, job-embedded professional development on meaningful classroom applications for technology and the nature of digital learners.   

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards.

Let’s take this quote one phrase at a time: 

Phrase 1: laptops had been abused by students

I love thoughts like these because words like "abused" are incredibly subjective! One man’s abuse is another man’s exploration, don’t you think? Evil Knievel made a mint abusing motorcycles—and redefined what is possible for generations of his fans at the same time. I can guarantee you that most students are doing things with laptops that most teachers have never even thought about trying—and being disciplined for it too! You see, inventive thinking is often frowned upon when crowd-control is priority one.

Phrase 2: did not fit into lesson plans

NO KIDDING! Until recently, laptops didn’t even exist in classrooms. How can we possibly expect them to have been fully incorporated into instruction?  Believe it or not, new technologies require teachers to work in new ways.  Expressing surprise when lessons need to be revised after millions of dollars are invested in classrooms is almost comical! 

Phrase 3: and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards.

That’s because our definition of "knowledge" hasn’t changed for centuries. Standardized tests and classroom instruction continues to be driven by the rote memorization of factoids that we’ve determined to be important for future success based on our past experiences. What’s more, in our frenzy to measure students, we’ve become dependent on multiple choice tests because they are quick measures of what a child knows. In the end, we churn out children choking on obsolege.

Here’s the quote that struck me the most, however:

Students like Eddie McCarthy, 18, a Liverpool senior, said his laptop made him “a lot better at typing,” as he used it to take notes in class, but not a better student. “I think it’s better to wait and buy one for college,” he said.

The emphasis added is mine. I bolded that phrase because it almost makes me want to scream! Like so many of the advocates of one-to-one laptop initiatives, Mr. McCarthy has missed the point when he says that his laptop didn’t make him a better student. Laptops alone will not make anyone a better student.  Neither will whiteboards, data projectors, or student responders. Heck, neither will time machines, hover crafts, morphing ray guns, talking androids, or Gamma transponders.

Quality instruction that uses technology as a "content delivery system" (a term I borrowed from my colleague Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach) is what improves student achievement.  Until we prioritize instruction over technology, we’ll continue to waste dollars—and opportunities to change the way that we educate our kids.

4 thoughts on “Schools Scrap Laptop Initiatives…

  1. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

    In my opinion, they were doomed when they named it “one-to-one laptop initiative”.
    I don’t recall every having a “textbook initiative”, or an “overhead projector initiative”, or a “TV initiative” when they moved TVs in the classroom.
    The tools support the program of study, they do not become the program of study.
    When we focus on the technology and not the learning we can’t expect anything to change on the standardized measures we hold so dear!
    Maintenance costs mount with the laptops and teachers do not change the way they teach. It as if we are using $1,500 pencils.
    We have to quit seeing technology as additive;one more thing added to a failing design- created to support industrial age learners.
    Rather we need to focus on the outcome, a multiliterate learner who understands how to communicate and collaborate in the 21st Century.
    It is about reculturing education. It is about using tools that are disruptive to the status quo in that they require us to do things in new and different ways. It is about remaining relevant and developing capacity in our teachers to prepare kids for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.
    I love this quote-
    “Technological change is not additive, its ecological. A new technology does not change something, it changes everything”
    [Neil Postman]

  2. John Norton

    Bill — Thanks for screaming so I don’t have to. You are eloquently on the mark. I’d just add one other thought.
    In the stories I’ve read about the “failure” of laptop initiatives, someone invariably says that the introduction of laptops didn’t improve test scores. No one that I saw pointed out that the high stakes standardized tests in use today are rooted in the learning standards of the industrial age. Laptops are excellent devices with which to explore Web 2.0 technologies and other digital tools that smart teachers can use to help students develop and strengthen 21st Century Skills. These skills are not tested, to any significant degree, on the high stakes tests — yet the results of those outdated assessments are being used to dismiss the need to increase the availability of technology in the classroom.
    Anyone who’s curious about what we SHOULD be teaching can visit this page at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website:
    So we’ve got two barriers to cross — teaching the right stuff, and preparing teachers who know how to teach the right stuff… using technology.

  3. Renee Moore

    Hallelujah, Bill.
    I especially agree with your observation: “…these programs didn’t fail because of finances. They failed because people believed that machines are magical elixirs and overlooked the role that teachers continue to play in student learning.”
    A school district a few miles from me THREW AWAY over 30 brand new desktop computers (still in the boxes)that they had gotten as result of a grant but had never been used because most of the teachers at that time had no computer experience, no idea how to integrate the technology into their teaching, and neither the grant nor the district had money designated for such training.
    Thanks for the push.

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