1:1 Laptop High Schools Down the Tubes? Not So Fast

Recently, I read about three public high schools (Philadelphia’s “School of the Future,” a joint venture with Microsoft, Liverpool High School, outside of Syracuse, NY, and T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, VA) that either have already disappointed champions of high-tech schools or are on the cusp of doing so.

All three schools issue laptops to students. Classrooms have mounted LCD projectors and collateral equipment that would stun visitors from developing nations. Many participants in the three schools, however, do not know whether the high-tech equipment has made much of a difference in teaching and learning and, furthermore, they question the worth of the investment. In each case, the promise of a new kind of schooling has dissolved into sharp criticism from teachers, administrators, and school board members.

What to make of these instances? Of the estimated 40 percent of school districts in the nation that have at least one 1:1 laptop school these three can hardly be considered representative since they are high schools, not middle or elementary schools. So, what can I say?

First, in reading each account, I recalled those advocates of technology who have mindfully extracted wisdom from scores of high-tech failures in schools. This hard-earned wisdom from battle-scarred veteran tech advocates shows up in their advice to those innocents who continue to cheerlead 1:1 laptops in the U.S. and internationally. Mike Trucano at the World Bank, for example, offers a list of nine “worst” practices (opposite of “best practices”) with two being especially apt for these three high schools:

1. “Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen.” Trucano goes on to say that such practices are kissing cousins to: “If we supply it, they will learn.”

2. “Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware.” He continues: “…it is a fact that, in many places, once computers are in place and a certain level of basic ICT literacy is imparted to teachers and students is the rather basic question asked: What are we going to do with all of this stuff?”

But, of course, lists of “worst” practices have the lifespan of a gnat because reformers’ unvarnished confidence in these devices invites amnesia about earlier high-tech ventures that stumbled. Even such advice coming from high-tech champions who thoroughly understand the power and the limits of school technologies seldom dent policymakers’ determination to buy and deploy high-tech devices during budget squeezes and cuts in teachers.

Second, buying 1:1 laptops for public high schools to raise students’ achievement is a fool’s errand. Good high schools, far more than elementary schools, are tough to create (see above “School of the Future”) and especially tough to move off a dime when student performance dips. The size, the disciplinary-based departments, schedule, traditional teaching, limited time teachers spend with students–no more than an hour a day–and the focus on content and skills for college and jobs give reformers ulcers. Remember Bill Gates who spent billions on converting big high schools into small one, well, he walked away from that initiative just last year.

Finally, my experience in researching a 1:1 high school for two years offers another story. The school introduced 1:1 in 2002 with great fanfare. However, shortly afterwards the school was put on academic probation for students low performance on state tests. 1:1 was suspended. By 2005, because of the entire school pulling together the state removed the school from its probation list. In 2006, the school re-adopted 1:1 and in various ways have issued laptops to individual students for the past four years. Since then, budget cuts, loss of discretionary funds, and changes in administration have led to a hybrid of 1:1 for some grades (9th and 10th) and carts of 32 laptops signed out to teachers who want to use them. If it were up to the teachers, every child would have a laptop–they voted for that option repeatedly in faculty meetings and on surveys. However, because of laptops going out of warranty and no funds to replace them, the hybrid model of carts, labs, and one grade having individual laptops is becoming the future in that school.

I offer this vignette because it differs from the three media stories and, I believe, gets closer to the truth of 1:1 laptops in public high schools that have had them for five-plus years. Whether teacher and student use of the machines in and out of class has made a difference in student test scores, writing, math, and other academic subjects is nearly impossible to determine because of state intervention, different deployments of laptops, the use of interactive-whiteboards in two departments, and much variety in teacher classroom uses of the devices.

The story I tell complicates the above picture of three laptop high schools presented recently in the media. No surprise, then, that the truth of what happens in laptop-rich schools is far more shades of gray than black or white.

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6 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

6 responses to “1:1 Laptop High Schools Down the Tubes? Not So Fast

  1. Don’t let yourself get confused about tools and when to use them.

    Our district did not implement any changes in pedagogy or curriculum during the pilot 1:1 project in 1999. The project was abandoned due to upfront expense, repair expense, and students not showing improvement in scores.

    Nearly ten years later, laptops are half the price and at my school at least, several teachers have moved curriculum to our CMS, Moodle, and methods include many more project-based lessons that use “technology.” As a result, I expect that we could implement a 1:1 program with about half of the school population.

    But what of the other half? We know home computers are an adoption issue, not a matter of affordability today. The “digital divide” has moved.

    I don’t see why it takes someone with special powers to examine how people use technology, but reflective behavior is evidently extremely difficult for people involved in education.

    Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Pappert championed the use of computers in *a* classroom to stimulate the imagination of students involved in project-based lessons. They thought that giving students access to the most advanced tool our culture has to offer would offer students a new world of possibilities.

    For some reason, people can’t distinguish production from the tool. As technology becomes more complex, tools become integrated into products. Mental activities can command production of objects or actions (common in education and games) and I like to think computers function in a similar fashion. They can embody thought in a unique way.

  2. Delia Turner

    A better example of a Philadelphia public high school that has embraced project-based learning and is a leader in thinking about the ways in which technology can facilitate thinking: Science Leadership Academy (http://www.scienceleadership.org/drupaled/) which also hosts the annual Educon conference (http://educon22.org/).

  3. Nate

    More than signifying the impending doom of 1:1 programs, I would hope people would take the stories of these three disappointments you open with as cautionary tales, just as you do.
    Personally, I often question whether the 1:1 program headed to the school where I teach will truly improve learning, and I certainly doubt we’ll see improved test scores. Still, I wonder if this is missing the point. As computers and the web are increasingly the language of information, I think it is important schools head that direction. To do so, we must be smart about it, and dumping in the hardware (worst practice #1) is clearly THE worst practice I can imagine.

  4. By the time the debate is half over, smartphones will have one hundred percent penetration in classrooms. I believe we are near the seventy percent mark now.

    This means that the only difference between the laptop in 1990 and the smartphone is the screen.

    Right now classrooms are experiencing the downside of instant communication without experiencing the benefit of it. Larry complained about smartphone use in a meeting among adults.

    It’s as if we can’t adopt pencils because goose feathers are just too darn good to let go. AARGH!

    • Nate

      You wrote, “Right now classrooms are experiencing the downside of instant communication without experiencing the benefit of it. ”

      I never thought of it that way, but it’s certainly true. I have students asking, “can I look that up on my phone?”, or “can I confirm my account on my phone right now instead of waiting to access email when I get home?” Technically – no phones allowed so “no!” Yet, while I’ve had this conversation someone on the other side of the room has surely just texted their friend about evening plans under their desk.

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