Maintining Vision, Focus and a Sense of History in Laptop Schools

Program Description:

Schools blessed with laptops have a special obligation to create sustainable models of school reform. The positive examples of student learning observed in laptop classrooms should provide overwhelming leverage for making such structural changes. However, the nature of school computing continues to be trivialized over time. This presentation will review what I have learned since I led teacher development efforts in the world's first two 'laptop schools' (in 1990) and challenge stakeholders to dream bigger in order to close the imagination gap threatening contemporary education.

Session Description:

It appears that the most powerful idea of educational computing is school's immunity to powerful ideas. Schools blessed with laptops have a special obligation to create sustainable models of school reform. The positive examples of student learning observed in laptop classrooms should provide overwhelming leverage for making such structural changes. Even the nature of school computing continues to be trivialized over time. This presentation will review what we have learned and challenge stakeholders to dream bigger in order to close the imagination gap threatening contemporary education. A report card will be provided for laptop schools to use as a self-assessment tool to see how they are living up to their potential.

The laptop learning stories found here and in other publications share the excitement of educators involved in laptop schools. Research studies conducted by doctoral students and Saul Rockman offer validation for the anecdotal testimony of terrific teachers. We have watched teachers transform themselves from civil students to scholars, observed unsuccessful students who become the star of their classrooms and math teachers who learn just enough French to be able to compliment student work within their bilingual Logo projects. Kids have embraced their laptops and their power as learners. We've seen legions of kids do amazing work on their laptops – Mozart-playing algebraic equation solvers; interactive animated reports illustrating countless curricular concepts; homemade video games; programmed robots; streaming web-based radio stations; multimedia productions; MIDI-based musical compositions; science experiments controlled by probes attached to laptops; dynamic poetry; student build science simulations; plays written and blocked; desktop published documents and much more.

Teachers who once had a cavalier attitude towards class size became outspoken advocates for smaller classes after making the transition from thirty plus students working on the same narrow assignment to a classroom pulsating with the energy of dozens of different open-ended projects. Seventh grade teachers at Methodist Ladies' College became so inspired by the English-speaking girls learning mathematics by constructing new knowledge in French LogoWriter and spontaneously speaking French to one another while doing so that they volunteered to teach an entire cohort of students ever subject in French. The laptop is indeed an imagination machine which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own

A call to leadership

While I don't wish to sound cynical, I remember the words of my old trumpet teacher who used to say, "never satisfied only gratified." Despite the amazing examples of educational potential presented by laptop students and the substantial investment of laptop schools, there are few examples of genuine sustainable school reform accompanying the "laptop lighthouses" illuminating the way.

Despite the desires of teachers, the needs of children and the enthusiasm of parents I am unaware of one laptop school that built upon its success to realize the educational reforms described by Dewey, Papert and other progressive educators. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to laptop implementation provides many schools with a historic mandate to make the systemic reforms needed to create new school structures, humanize schooling and challenge our notions of curriculum, teaching and assessment. While some schools have embraced block scheduling in order to support project-based learning, I have little knowledge of laptop schools who have taken the next obvious step of reinventing education for the twenty-first century. In my opinion the next decades' laptop schools will be judged by how many have multi-aged classrooms, have adopted truly authentic forms of assessment, build curriculum upon the interests of each learner and stop ranking/tracking students.

School leaders must familiarize themselves with the technology, assume responsibility for decisions and model the types of learning they advocate for their teachers and students. In other words, it is critical that school administrators engage in the change process accompanying laptop implementation. Few school principals actually participate in the hands-on professional development activities they prescribe for their teachers. In the words of Silicon Valley, principals must begin to eat their own dog food. Most importantly, school administrators must possess the attention span, vision and leadership skills necessary for supporting teachers through their own growth processes while building structures to ensure long-term educational innovation.

The ongoing attention accorded to the laptop part of "laptop schools" may actually retard our practice. Too many educational leaders have become distracted by the technology and have strayed from their mission in order to engage in interminable discussions of Ethernet dongles and laptop prices. The technocentric focus on laptop procurement, software upgrades and competitive pressure to be doing something new only serves to reinforce the notion that laptops are a school novelty.

The Independent Governor of Maine, Angus King, has tirelessly lobbied the legislature to support his plan to provide every seventh grader in Maine with a laptop computer. The Governor sees this as an imperative investment in the intellectual, cultural and economic future of his state. However, his political opponents and more importantly, the citizens of Maine, are skeptical about investing in an untested scheme. More than two thirds of the voters polled were opposed to the Governor's laptop initial proposal. The newspapers were full of editorials challenging the wisdom of the proposal by questioning the merits of anytime, anywhere learning and the viability of trusting seventh graders with laptops. One class of eighth graders wrote letters to the editor of the Portland Press Herald proclaiming how they are too irresponsible to be trusted with a laptop. Could this denial of the digital world be another alarming symptom of a school system in crisis?

In this information age you might be asking yourself, "How can the citizens of Maine not know that Steve Costa began teaching with laptops thirteen years ago? Why don't they know that fifth graders in Harlem walk to and from school each day with a personal laptop without horrific examples of theft, breakage or violence? Why do they think that the idea of students without laptops is untested?" I would like to go out on a limb and suggest that the shortage of schools dramatically transformed by years of laptop use has created a vacuum in which we continue to focus on the novelty of laptops and the value of educational computing.

It seems as if the ideals of progressive education and the instruments of that progress, in this case the laptop, are treated with the caution and suspicion worthy of new devices. Multi-age education, authentic assessment and social collaborative learning environments outfitted with object to think with are not new inventions. They represent the timeless natural form of learning. New age prophets like Don Tapscott is mistaken when he says that, "new forms of learning must replace forms of learning." A more accurate statement would be, that new forms of teaching must replace old models of teaching. The forms of learning needed today have always existed if not always honored by the structure of the common school.

So why should every kid have a laptop? Seymour Papert would respond by saying, "because I have a laptop and so does almost every person I know engaged in any sort of creative or knowledge work." We should want kids engaged in serious intellectual and creative pursuits. The laptop enables this. Critics might also ask, "why should schools provide laptops when computers and Internet access are already ubiquitous in the home?" The answer is that all kids do not yet have equitable access, but even when the access issue is resolved in the near future there is a reason for schools to provide laptops. It is human nature to value what you pay for. Schools that invest in laptops for every child and teacher send the message that computers are critical learning materials and here to stay. This is in some ways an incremental step pointing towards the day when every member of society has an indispensable portable computer.

This acknowledgement inspires schools to reinvent themselves and be prepared for the day when every kid has a computer with them when they arrive at school. "Non-laptop" schools will react in haste, hysteria and ignorance when kids arrive at school with their own personal computers. This will only cause greater student disaffection and accelerate the irrelevance of school in the learning life of children.

In the past most people left the world only slightly different from how it was when they found it. The rapid and accelerating change that marks our times means that every individual will see bigger changes every few years than previous generations saw in a lifetime. So this is the choice we must make for ourselves, for our children, for our countries and for our planet: acquire the skills needed to participate with the construction of what is new OR be resigned to a life of dependency. (Seymour Papert - What is Logo? And Who Needs It? - 1999)

That is our challenge. As prices fall and computer power increases in smaller packages, the term, "laptop school," will seem quaint and elitist. We may also take computers for granted and not use ubiquitous access as an opportunity to invite students to use them in the creation of something great. It is the responsibility of professional educators to help close the imagination gap and empower students to go beyond what has been previously possible. It is our challenge to dream big dreams, create a rich learning environment for the social construction of knowledge and be open to new opportunities. I look forward to the day when all students experience the sense of wonder and accomplishment I enjoyed while using my school's primitive computers. I salute your efforts and wish you well in enacting a vision of educational computing as a universal right for all learners rather than the nostalgic rambling of an old-timer.