digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

My own laptops-in-the-schools dilemma

June 15, 2009 _ 13:35 / Rachel Dretzin / comments (5)

RachelatComp.jpgToday, we posted a rough cut of a video we shot at IS 339, a middle school in the Bronx that has reinvented itself in part through a one-to-one laptop program. While we were filming the piece, I was wrestling with the issue of technology in the classroom on a personal level as well.

I have a fifth-grade son who's graduating from his decidedly low-tech public elementary school in a couple of weeks. The search for an appropriate middle school for him consumed most of last fall, and by the time we had finished touring most of the public and private schools in the area, there were only two schools left on the list. One was a laptop school, and the other one essentially uses no technology at all.

If I'm going to be honest, I have to admit that the choice we faced mirrored my own ambivalence about the issue of computers in the classroom. On the one hand, I saw firsthand through my work on this project how exciting technology can make learning for children; how much more it allows them to do; how it can cater to all sorts of learners and how much more easily kids can tailor their education to their own strengths and weaknesses when technology is in the picture.

On the other hand, I found myself wondering if it was all really necessary. Our kids will be spending the rest of their lives at a keyboard. They already spend large chunks of their time in front of one. Isn't it now that we need to expose them to the things that they may not get a chance to experience otherwise? Things that take time, that don't split their focus, and that don't provide instant gratification -- like reading a book for hours, or writing a paper longhand, even though it makes their hand cramp up, or memorizing the Declaration of Independence?

In the interviews we've done with teachers and principals at IS 339 and elsewhere, they laud the skill of multitasking as an essential tool to success in the 21st-century workplace. Schools that don't acknowledge this essential reality, they say, are closing their eyes to the new world our children are already living in, and risk seeming irrelevant.

Agreed. But I also identify with Rose Porpora, the English teacher at Chatham High School we interviewed for Growing Up Online, who said: "They are so overexposed to the quickness of things and the immediate responses. It's just all at their fingertips. So when you have to reverse that and have them be quiet and give answers and carve out meaning, I think it's difficult for a lot of students."

In the end, we decided to send our son to a laptop school. For a bunch of reasons, it was the best place for him: closer to home, filled with kids he knows, smaller and more intimate. Truth be told, I'm still mixed about the laptops. I feel like I'm going to have to work that much harder to make sure he continues to indulge in the old-fashioned, technology-free pleasures he does now.

But I think I know my kid, and I suspect that no laptop in the classroom is going to fundamentally change him. For the most part, he still has the precious ability to slow down and lose himself in a task, and thanks in part to loudmouthed me, a mindfulness of how important it is to hold onto that.

With his permission, I'll continue to blog about this as he gets his first laptop and starts school in September. Stay tuned.

- Rachel


I am a Foreign Language teacher and passionate about Web 2.0. My main struggle with my students so far is keeping them on task when working with laptops.
Sometimes I think that it is just a matter of perception. They want to listen to music, search the internet, write a paper, check email and chat at the same time. I cannot allow them to do it because I think it is not possible. But I wonder, and if I am wrong.
My daughter is a sophomore at the same high school where I teach. She is a remarkable student with most A pluses and some A minuses. We had lots of arguments just for that reason. She would be on the computer writing a paper, listening to music, researching, chatting... you name it, and she does it all at once. It took me a few years of her outstanding performance in honor classes and many awards to admit that she can do it.
Many times my students tell me that they are more productive if they work listening to music for instance. I keep saying to them that it is not true and I had some kids get so upset that they refused to do any work whatsoever.
My point is: I do not know to which extent we, who grew up before the digital age, just cannot get rid of our way of seeing and doing things.

Americo Motta / June 16, 2009 _ 14:35

I have been teaching computers for 13 years at various educational institutions and in all ages, from 3 years old to senior citizens.

Here is my point of view as far as to going high tech in the classrooms. I believe that in the future, laptops/computers will be in every classroom, with every student utilizing his/her own computer. What is going on now is mearly a natural step in the progressive proccess in this direction.

Not only is utilizing computers cost effective in the long run, saving schools, at the very least, the cost of expensive books, but it also has been shown to be a huge advantagious tool in helping kids with learning disabilities and kids that don't quite fit into the normal range of learning. Sometimes these are kids that think and learn "outside the box". These are also kids that may even have mild to moderate cases of Dyslexia, Autism, ADD or ADDHD.

It is a fact that with technology everywhere, especially with the enticement of computer games and educational games, kids are, as a result, being molded at an early age and therefore, respond very positively to technology in the classroom.

However, my point is this: When we teachers teach technology/computer subjects in the classroom, at any age level, it is our responsibility as teachers to also teach, along with computer skills; Internet Safety, Computer Etiquette, and Media Awareness! These subjects should go hand-in-hand with ANY computer class being taught. These subjects should be mandatory!

As a result, I have created and have begun utilizing just such a curriculum with teenagers in an afterschool program, and the feed back I get from parents is extremely positive and enthusiastic. Also, it should be noted, amazingly enough, that the teens I have taught this to actually seem to crave just such a curriculum.

We have never been able to stop progress, and as we know, with everything new, there is the good and the bad. But with proper guidence, a student can learn to get the good out of technology as well as the teachers and parents. And with technology in the classroom, I believe that there is more good that bad that awaits us.

Nancy McCarter / June 18, 2009 _ 12:50

Just some thoughts:

--Different people have different work habits. Some prefer to listen to music while working, and some do not. Kids are probably no different.

--The kinds of jobs that these kids should have in the future will require fluency with computers (even in just typing up a professional-looking resume). Getting them comfortable as early as possible to certain, common "computer interaction models" will not only provide familiarity, but confidence as well for the future (i.e. Word Processors, Spreadsheets, Slide Presentations/Powerpoint, etc). These are the foundations of modern professional careers and kids need to be exposed to these things as early as possible, so by the time they get out of school, they will already have a long history of "advanced" computer interaction and be ready to tackle more complicated things. For example, instead of postponing learning how to transfer data from one program to another, they can be exposed to the basics sooner and spend time learning more complex routines in the future, like how to transfer data between two *incompatible* programs (by the way, there are simple solutions to a problem like this, but it will only be apparent to someone who has enough intermediate familiarity and confidence to figure it out). Another great lesson is graphics manipulation/customization, such as in MySpace, Blogger, or Tumblr. Yet another is learning about and knowing how to use hidden "special commands" in various applications, which teaches one that there are more ways to use a program than just the obvious buttons that are visible on the screen. The list goes on. These all have real-world applications (such as in a typical corporate office environment).

--Multi-tasking and attention-deficit are real problems even to people who are not diagnosed with any kind of "disorder". They are prevalent even in 30-something friends of mine who did not necessarily grow up using the internet (they grew up watching TV, like me). Perhaps the inability to focus is a natural tendency among people and that it is more productive to learn "active" techniques to maintain focus rather than debating whether this "ADD generation" should be restricted access to computers or not (which I think is a passive response to the problem).

Re: reading a book for hours, or writing a paper longhand, even though it makes their hand cramp up, or memorizing the Declaration of Independence.

These things do not take an entire year to do or teach. Besides, these can be taught concurrently alongside computers. It would be too simplistic to say kids have to learn one or the other. On the other hand, it would be irresponsible to fill up an entire year's worth of curriculum with "things that take time". In such a case, you would be grooming the kids to pursue a job in art/literature, calligraphy, academics, et al. All of which are difficult fields to get a job in. If the kid has a trust fund, fine -- you can teach them something totally useless for a year. But if she/he doesn't, please balance it out and be realistic.

RL / June 22, 2009 _ 15:37

I invite people on my facebook that I know in real life.

KRYSTIAN / September 04, 2009 _ 11:03

As I listen to people express their concerns about computer based learning, I've not been able to crystalize the concerns. So I'll share mine.

I think computer based learning begins to be a liability as students try to substitute it for real world situations. Not unlike concerns that TV dramas and sitcoms might be interpreted, by both young and old, as what real life is like. Computer base learning needs to be balanced with real life, 3D, experience. Debating live with other students, assembling mechanical devices that they design in 2 or 3D on a computer screen, applying what they have learned 'on line' in real life situations should be a more effective learning model than 100% online or 0% online.

Rich Roper / September 27, 2009 _ 21:04


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