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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Schools drop laptop programs - but are they dropping the ball as well?

The New York Times is reporting today that some schools have been dropping their student laptop programs, labeling them a failure. But what’s the actual failure taking place here? I fear it’s a failure of expectations and imagination.

The headline in the paper was blunt: Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops. The New York Times takes a look at Liverpool High School, where an ambitious program to supply students with their own laptops has turned to cynicism:

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers. So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

Like many schools that have embraced laptop initiatives, much of the spin used to promote the idea was all about bridging the digital divide. If low-income students didn’t have access to the same technology their well-off peers did, they would be at an educational disadvantage. Despite this reasonable assessment, it’s now boiled down to this question: does the cost of maintaining a laptop program translate into higher student performance?

Quoting the article again:

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

… 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. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs….

… Matoaca High School just outside Richmond, Va., began eliminating its five-year-old laptop program last fall after concluding that students had failed to show any academic gains compared with those in schools without laptops. Continuing the program would have cost an additional $1.5 million for the first year alone, and a survey of district teachers and parents found that one-fifth of Matoaca students rarely or never used their laptops for learning. “You have to put your money where you think it’s going to give you the best achievement results,” said Tim Bullis, a district spokesman.

The moral of the story would seem straightforward: large investments in educational technology focused on raising test scores simply don’t work. And you know what? They’re right. If you take a bunch of laptops and make them available to every student, you shouldn’t expect to see grades skyrocket. But many education technology advocates could have told these schools the same thing before they invested all of this money and gotten burned.

There are several factors contributing to the situation. On the one hand, you have some folks who see laptops as a panacea, a magic bullet. “If you distribute them, they will learn,” so the mantra might go. (And I’ve got a monorail to sell your community.) I’ve seen it happen again and again over the years. When people pitch an edtech program as that magic bullet, they need to convince certain stakeholders, always including teachers and administrators, but often parents, politicians and the media as well. In the process, it’s all too easy to oversell the tools in question as shortcuts for improving test scores rather than as devices that create an opportunity to rethink how students learn, or prepare them for a future that demands technology literacy. Reinventing teaching practices is tough, and rarely boils down to soundbites. So as far as outside stakeholders are concerned, the sole metric for success becomes test scores. And that’s a recipe for failure, not success, as long as those tests don’t evolve along with the learning opportunities created by technology.

When you get caught up in the hype, it’s easy to forget a very basic axiom: if you’re going to make a fundamental shift in how students and teachers access technology, you better be prepared to make lots of other fundamental shifts in how you assess and teach students.

For one thing, those standardized tests used as bellwethers of progress aren’t crafted to assess the kinds of learning that take place with certain technologies. Laptops bring four big opportunities to the table: opportunities for equal access, mobility, individual creativity and for collaboration. Many of these laptop programs focus a lot on the first opportunity - promoting equal access - and bless their hearts for it. But unless educators are in a position to embrace and encourage the other three, you’re missing out on most of the benefits that can come from a laptop program.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen students using their laptops in the classroom as if nothing else had changed, lined up in neat rows, each laptop on a desk, with students listening to a teacher lecture or taking a test on the laptop. Those aren’t laptops - those are expensive pencils. Of course you’re not going to see achievement improve when pedagogical practices aren’t rethought from the ground up! Where is the boldness, the pedagogical imagination required to put these devices to use to reach their teaching potential - and students’ learning potential, for that matter?

And the worst part is we’re going to see this happen again. The so-called $100 laptop being developed by MIT will eventually be made available to the U.S. market, though not at that particular price. While they hope to make these laptops available at that cost overseas eventually, they’ll charge more here to help offset costs for users in developing nations. Though not without controversy, on the whole it’s an exciting development - and I’m glad to see how the program is creating competition among hardware manufactures do develop hardy, low-cost devices designed for learning. But when I hear this laptop discussed by some people, I sometimes see a glimmer in their eye - a glimmer that envisions a school district where every student has a lime green laptop, miraculously causing test scores to skyrocket, followed by a chorus of hosannahs from school board members as they offer a pay raise to every teacher in glorious celebration.

Why is it so hard to have measured, realistic expectations about the role of education technology? Probably because measured, realistic expectations, even if they lead to a long-term gain, just don’t make great sales pitches.

Quoting edublogger Steve Hargadon, “If computing just mimics the current teaching methodologies, how could you expect a change?” I certainly wouldn’t. And it’s a shame that too many administrators, policymakers, technology vendors and journalists don’t understand this notion as well. Laptop programs have a place in our schools. But unless we’re prepared to change how those schools teach with those laptops, we’re just burning through money, good will and expectations. -andy

Filed under : Mobile Devices, Policy, Research


Wonderful article. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought the exact same things. There’s no magic technology that will boost test scores and make the next generation one full of little braniacs. As always, it takes a devotion to utilizing the tools we do have to their utmost potential.

It’s unfortunate to see schools write off the laptops before giving them a chance to succeed (and measuring this success realistically) because exposure to and experience with these technologies will be crucial in the years to come.

I don’t know that we’ll see the changes we’re looking for until those in charge (teachers and administrators) have themselves grown up with this technology.


You’re spot on as usual. 1-to-1 computing is not a magic bullet and it isn’t about raising test scores on standardized tests. And, I’ve heard from a well-placed source, the original intent in Liverpool was not about measuring the 1-to-1 program in terms of test scores improvements, but it was about a contemporary learning environment that utilized the laptop as a tool for learning. The emphasis on results on tests is a recent add-on that is being used to help justify the removal of the program from the budget.

Ultimately, 1-to-1 computing needs to be known as 1-to-1 learning; it needs to center around the shift in pedagogy and the development of compelling learning environments for students and teachers. Continuing to fixate on the technology will not move these other priorities forward.


You are so right. I was involved in an early (1996) adoption of laptops. The school was very conservative in its pedagogy. While I was very much in favor of the move, I remember saying to the director of studies, “You do realize you’re starting a revolution?” As you said, introducing a new technology without taking thought for revamping the pedagogy will result in a “failed” initiative. Looking back after 10 years, it’s so obvious. At the time, we thought the laptops would make educational change all by themselves.

Far better to look at learning first: how do people learn, what is our curriculum, what thinking skills are we trying to teach? I believe answering those hard questions first will ultimately lead to relevant and powerful integration of technology.

Here’s my favorite line from the article:

“But in many other classrooms, there was nary a laptop in sight as teachers read from textbooks and scribbled on chalkboards.”

Need we say more about the unwillingness to change? Even without the laptops, is school still going to be about teachers reading to students and writing on chalkboards?

So much for preparing for a global workplace.

Two observations:

Historically, our culture has a reverence for technology that borders on the mystical. Erik Davis examines this in his book, “Techgnosis, Magic, myth and mysticism in the age of information.” Built-in to our world-view is the notion that any problem can be fixed if we can only invent the appropriate technology and apply it liberally. Its no surprise then that we have looked to computers to solve our education “problems,” the definition of which depend on whom you ask.

The effectiveness of any efforts to reform, improve, or restructure education are limited by the manner in which we assess students. We have allowed the federal government to impose a very outdated and deeply conservative model of assessment on our public K-12 system. But, even before NCLB, states were pushing standardized tests, usually one shot pencil and paper, to “measure” student progress.

Until we are wiling to redefine what the purpose of education is, it is nearly impossible to change the manner in which we teach. Initiatives such as 1-1 computing, will be shoe-horned into the existing pedagogy.

We must create the context in which 1-1 computing can be effective by redefining what education looks like and how it is assessed. Until then we will continue to see “islands of innovation” that prove successful (usually because the rules of engagement have been suspended) surrounded by expensive failures.

Technology can’t force a change in education, as I once believed it could. Education must change first. Then we will begin to realize the full potential of technology.

Seymour Sarason called one of his books THE PREDICTABLE FAILURE OF EDUCATIONAL REFORM.

The arrival of every new technology has been greeted with rapture by educational reformers: movies would revolutionize schooling, said Thomas Edison; and radio would bring the great minds of the world into all the poor schools of the US; and television, of course, would totally transform the nature of education.

And when the transformation fails to occur, the responses are always the same: the teachers haven’t been trained, the administrators and the communities resist change, the technology can’t do its work as long as the old restraints remain in place. Or: we’re measuring the new possibilities with the old rulers: we need new metrics.

Does anyone know what needs to be done to education that would allow it to benefit from film, radio, television—and the computer?

Can someone organize a school that demonstrates well after the initial enthusiasm and Hawthorne effect dissolve that a technologized education can make a difference?

I think the biggest problem is that the laptops take up too much desk space. When I expect students to practice their penmanship, or to work silently in independent work, the laptops are a distraction as students try to collaborate with each other or post to their blogs.

We will never prepare our students for the specialized factory jobs of this century if they are permitted to use computers on social networking sites. My students do not perform on the handwritten essay tests given by our school because they lack the linear writing skills - on a computer they can edit and correct their work - whereas on the test they must plan carefully and ensure that they write the correct words the first time.

We need to prepare our students for this new 20th Century. Computers are standing in the way.

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I have enjoyed reading the entries and commentary about the 1:1 Laptop program at Liverpool. The majority of the commentary is right on! In our school district, tucked away outside of Montreal, we are into our fourth year of 1:1 laptop deployments, grades 3-11. There have been many challenges, certainly, but we have insisted on ensuring that the laptops are transformational agents for the teachers and students.
In the province of Quebec, project based learning is the required approach and technology has been integrated to support this fundamental shift in teaching and evaluative practices. Taking a laptop and simply saying to teachers and students, go ahead and prepare yourself for the 21st century is foolish.
There remains many challenges and ongoing support for the teachers and students is always at the forefront of our concerns.
Costs are an issue but we decided, in our district to do something that is rarely seen in education nowadays. We view education as an investment, not an expenditure. In doing so, we have re-aligned our commitment to providing our teachers with every possible tool, so as to enhance their classroom environment.
On our results, we have tested our students on digital literacy, creative thinking and writing skills, and the impact has been important at the elementary level. We will need to work more at the secondary level.
Educators who have visited us, consistently remarked about how the classroom looks and is different. Our teachers and students have done a remarkable job in this domain but there is still much work to complete.
We too have research that clearly stipulates that lousy integration of technology leads to poor or “no gain” results in the traditional areas of measurement. But this is true even for a textbook, poor integration leads to poor results. Curiously, we never heard for the abolishment of textbooks in the classroom.
One other challenge that faces us is that technology suppliers simply “don’t get” the world of education. They still insist that a machine designed for adults can simply be injected into classrooms and children. This is also one of the roots for the technical issues that plague 1:1 deployments around North America.
We remain heavily inspired by Dr. Seymor Papert, who insisted technology should be a transformation tool, not something to provide greater insistence on traditional teaching and learning practices. He made such a comment in 1971 and little has changed since. Simply look at what has happened at Liverpool.


Great points. I made very similar ones on my blog… and the one thing that consistently amazes me is that schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on 1:1 laptop programs and do not create dynamic learning environments via the web. How many schools have 1:1 programs and don’t use Moodle or Drupal (or even Blackboard?)

The sheer lack of planning with so many 1:1 schools astounds me.

Let’s not forget this nugget:

“Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not.”

It’s amazing that the government can study just two educational software titles and surmise that ‘All Educational Software shows no difference in achievement.’

Insanity — just sheer insanity.

I just discovered your blog today. What a wonderful resource! Keep up the great work!

As a laptop teacher for the past four years, I have a love-hate relationship with the laptop program. Do they enhance student learning? Maybe. Are they a distraction? Definitely! Until colleges change their teaching styles and standardized testing is rethought as a way to evaluate the student admission process to college, the question of the value of a laptop program in high schools will go unanswered. Does one throw out tried and proven traditional teaching methods simply to incorporate the laptop in the classroom? No way! Education in this country has a history of fads and jumping on the latest bandwagon. In the long run, laptop programs will run their course and then resurface in twenty years as the next great teaching innovation.

I worry about introducing computers into kids’ lives at too early an age. The next generation will be enslaved by technology to a degree that we may not even be able to fully forsee. Computers will undoubtedly dominate nearly every facet of their lives. Don’t we have a responsibility to make sure kids have ample opportunities to learn how to exist & thrive in the real world before thrusting them headlong into the inescapable cyber-world?

And in making computer-use skills such a priority for kids could we be placing barriers to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems? How self-relaint will the Google generation be when the answer to any problem always seems a mouse click away?

Great info and thoughts. I’m in a laptop district and hope we keep them. I blogged about it at: http://henricowarriors.org/hhsnews/

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