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Tracing the Start of the Laptop Revolution in Schools


In 1990, fifth graders at a private school in Australia were introduced to laptops, and their learning was never the same. Author Bob Johnstone talks about the first laptop school, how it drew visitors and researchers from around the world, and how other schools can learn from that experience. Included: Tips on how to integrate laptops into the curriculum.

Some might be surprised to learn that the pioneers of laptop use in schools were not educators at a technology-steeped Silicon Valley school or in a district abutting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but teachers at a private girls' school in Melbourne, Australia. In 1990, the faculty at Methodist Ladies' College urged parents of fifth graders to buy laptops for their children, making it the first school in the world with widespread individual laptop use. As the program spread throughout the grades, school officials saw students develop into more motivated, independent learners, and ultimately, saw school test scores increase.

Microsoft officials in the United States were so intrigued when they heard that ten-year-olds were using their software daily and adeptly that, in 1995, the company flew ten American educators to Australia to observe classes at MLC. Since then, laptop use has grown in public and private schools in Australia and other countries.

Bob Johnstone, a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia, writes about the embrace of technology by faculty and students at Methodist Ladies' College in Never Mind The Laptops: Kids, Computers and the Transformation of Learning. A former reporter, Johnstone has written about the impact of technology on society for more than 20 years. In 1991, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

Bob Johnstone

Johnstone talked with Education World about integrating laptops into the curriculum and making them an everyday learning tool.

Education World: What are the key ingredients for successfully integrating laptops into the curriculum?

Bob Johnstone: The key ingredients are the same as for integration of any good pedagogy and classroom practice designed to improve learning: strong leaders who can explicitly define the objective of introducing this form of computer into students' lives, and who can explain the advantages of the one computer-to-one student mode.

Also, you need community understanding and ownership of the process of change to improve student learning outcomes, as well as high levels of professional development, staff mentoring, and modeling of good practice -- in as many different guises as possible.

In addition, one needs support for, and encouragement of, exchange with other professionals and other schools in their learning practices, and rewards for best practices for teachers, students, and technical staff. Fostering a culture that embraces change, that is willing to try new things, and that refuses to de daunted also is helpful, as well as building good relationships with contacts in the information technology industry.

EW: How can administrators avoid being influenced by technology companies that obviously are seeking customers when deciding on the best resources for their schools?

Johnstone: Administrators can avoid such influence by making sure that the conversation begins with the learning outcome and working back from there, and by refusing to accept the standard offerings of software companies and demanding that they provide products capable of delivering the learning experiences their students need.

Also, administrators need to tell hardware vendors that if they want to succeed in the education market, they must come to terms with what learners need. Vendors should price their products according to what schools can afford to pay, in anticipation of the volume of sales that such prices would stimulate.

"The computer blows away drudge work, like copying out essays, or hand-drawing geometrical diagrams, freeing up time for more creative tasks. In the hands of the learner, it can be a tool of unprecedented power," says Bob Johnstone, author of Never Mind the Laptops.
EW: What factors or actions have prevented the wider acceptance of laptop use in schools in Australia and other countries?

Johnstone: Obviously, the cost of the laptops -- versus desktops -- and the associated technical support structure within schools, are key factors. Other factors include a lack of understanding of the real potential of a one student-to-one computer program, of the profound change in teaching and learning experiences that accompany the introduction of laptops, and of the need to support that change with new learning environments and support for staff. Finally, a lack of bold leadership at the school and institutional level, in initiating the change and supporting its consequences is a factor.

EW: Todd Oppenheimer, author of the book, The Flickering Mind, (Read an Education World Wire Side Chat interview with Oppenheimer, Author Says Technology Brings False Promises to Schools.) argues that the current emphasis on technology use in schools drains resources from other subjects, and prevents students from developing creatively and learning critical thinking skills. How would you respond to that?

Johnstone: I think it's nonsense. My impression is that schools are not exactly doing a wonderful job of teaching creativity and critical thinking using traditional methods. Indeed, whether creativity actually can be taught is questionable. Surely, the idea is to provide as many outlets as possible for the students' natural creativity, to encourage it to develop?

The computer blows away drudgework, like copying out essays, or hand-drawing geometrical diagrams, freeing up time for more creative tasks. In the hands of the learner, it can be a tool of unprecedented power. Software packages like PhotoShop and Flash (animation) offer even primary school children extraordinary opportunities for creativity.

As for critical thinking, that requires a sophisticated understanding of what is out there in terms of information resources. Trying to pretend that the Internet doesn't exist, or arguing that students lack the ability to discriminate between good and bad Web sites, is simply burying your head in the sand. How are students ever going to learn such critical skills without the opportunity to practice them?

This e-interview with Bob Johnstone is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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Copyright © 2004 Education World

Updated 09/16/2009