At Carmen Arace Middle School in Bloomfield, Connecticut, all 848 students and their teachers use laptop computers. The school began empowering students and faculty with laptops in April 1998. By September 1998 everyone was on-line.
It's too soon for the experiment to yield hard statistics about how students are doing under the new approach, but administrators and staff offer plenty of anecdotal evidence that the experiment is working well.
"What the laptops have created is a sense of excitement about learning in general," said Jerry Crystal, the technology integration specialist who troubleshoots the system and generally teaches students and teachers more about using their laptops.
"They've created greater interest in research, writing, and projects students work on," he continued. "The laptops lead to a sense of discovery every day, keeping students more focused and on task.
"Even the glitches and stumbling blocks," Crystal added, "are useful in teaching students persistence. Technology doesn't always work perfectly the first time; sometimes it's slow. Sometimes students have to make the technology work for them."
Crystal also said sharing information about their laptops while working on projects fosters a genuine sense of cooperation and community among the students.
How did the school benefit from this windfall of laptops? The school system decided to spend $2 million on computers. Unlike some other school districts that equip students with laptops, families of Carmen Arace students do not have to purchase computers for students.
"Families do pay $60 a year for insurance so students can take the computers home," explains Carmen Arace principal Delores M. Bolton. If parents can't afford the fee, the school's parent organization assists them. "We felt this would work only if all students had equal access to laptops and could take them home." Bolton is overwhelmingly positive about the laptops' presence in the school community but acknowledges they require an adjustment. "Talk, talk, talk doesn't work for teachers in the classroom anymore," she said. "The teacher becomes more of a facilitator."
Staff development, Bolton continued, was the key to a successful transition to the world of laptops. "Teachers had their computers six months before students. That was very useful in ensuring that the staff was comfortable with the laptops."
The school is one of 15 schools nationwide using NetSchool computers and technology in the daily curriculum. Bolton noted that the laptops influenced discipline as well as academics in the school, saying outside suspensions declined by 50 to 60 percent in the one year laptops have been used.
In northern Georgia's Towns County, all 270 middle-school students began using Samsung laptop computers from NetSchool in the fall of 1998.
Parents had to attend computer camps before the laptops were given out, so that families could use the computers at home. A $320,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funds development and improvements in 13 Appalachian states, plus $80,000 from local donors paid for the laptops.
When fighting illiteracy, "it is imperative to introduce a program in which students and their parents are able to participate," Stephen Smith, Towns County Middle School principal, told the Associated Press in a November 28, 1998 article. In Towns County, students and their families learned to surf the Internet together.
The laptops have enhanced learning, but Smith cited some problems. Many students haven't had formal typing instruction, they may forget to bring their laptops to class, and some teachers aren't sure how to integrate computer use into their lessons.
Some schools, like the two above, paid for laptops with money from the school system, a grant from an outside source, donations, or a combination of the three. Other schools ask parents to foot the bill.
Typically, parents are asked to pay from $50 to $80 a month to purchase a laptop for a student. Local fundraisers provide money for families who cannot afford the cost. Some schools have decided to push ahead with laptops-for-students programs even though some students' families won't be able to afford them.
"There is a financial consideration for parents, sure, but I can't pinpoint a better investment to make in our kids," parent Craig Purcell of Walled Lake, Michigan, told the Associated Press in a November, 28, 1998, story. A plan for the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools called for kids in fifth grade and sixth grade to use laptops for which their parents would pay $50 per month.
"I can't imagine my son lugging a computer back and forth to school every day," said Paulette Loe in the same Associated Press story. "Some of us are saying to ourselves, 'Why do we need this? It's too much.' And there will be parents who will not be able to afford it. Why is the school trying to put the onus of technology onto the parent?"
Questions about the cost of a laptop for every child lead to questions about whether this particular technology is necessary. Critics argue that because laptops are too expensive to be distributed equitably among children, their use in just a few classrooms -- at great expense -- is simply unfair. On the other hand, people who worry that students with computers at home have an unfair advantage over students who don't have computers at home might argue for school-system-funded laptops for every student.
At some schools, teachers have complained about lack of administrative support in how to work computers into the curriculum. "What's the point of fancy technology," says one teacher who wished to remain anonymous, "when I haven't had sufficient learning experiences to feel confident in using it."
Despite criticisms, however, the case for laptops for every student remains a compelling one. Computers, as part of our society, are here to stay, and many proponents of a laptop for every student think young people need to begin developing computer skills so they will be employable when they graduate from high school or college.
Article by Sharon Cromwell
Copyright © 1999 Education World