Much of the recent emphasis in secondary and primary education, particularly beginning in the early 2000’s, has been on 1:1 laptop initiatives. Such initiatives seek to provide a single laptop to every student enrolled in some subdivision of a school: a grade, an entire school, or even a school district. The working premise of such programs is that the initiatives will deliver some form of improved outcome for students such as higher test scores, lower absenteeism, or reduced dropout rates.
Such initiatives began to take on a grander scale. One of the first major laptop initiatives to be deployed was through the State of Maine’s Maine Learning Technology Initiative. This initiative selected Apple Computer, Inc. for the hardware and soon began rolling out laptops to middle schools and high schools across the state. According to the initiative, 100% of middle schools and 55% of high schools in the state now have a 1:1 ratio. Other states quickly followed suit, such as neighboring New Hampshire and Connecticut and 1:1 laptop initiatives quickly became the “in” thing to do.
However, the promise soured almost as soon as the laptops were removed from the box. In a poignant article in the Wall Street Journal, laptop programs were coming under fire for the expense of the program as well as the inappropriate use of laptops by students. According to the article, the then-current four-year contract between the Maine Department of Education and Apple was a staggering $41 million. Many other programs were being cut entirely or even scaled back because of the cost. There was also parental backlash as well: parents felt that the easy access to laptop computers merely enabled participation on social networking sites such as Facebook, leading to decreased time spent on actual study.
But were the concerns of parents justified? In a New York Times article titled “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” staff writer Winnie Hu profiled the Liverpool Central School District, who had made the intriguing decision to scrap their 1:1 computing initiative altogether. Citing the use of the computers as means to exchange test answers, download pornography, and hack into local businesses, the article highlights the district’s decision to completely abandon their initiative. With no data that the program was improving student outcomes, the school could not remain committed to the program in the face of the expensive price tag.
Is this really true? Have laptops – which were yesterday’s educational treasure – become today’s trash in such short order? With budgets being slashed, schools are beginning to reexamine their commitments to such initiatives. Unfortunately, the data for improving student performance isn’t particularly compelling. In a special edition titled “Educational Outcomes and Research from 1:1 Computing Settings,” The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment concluded in a meta-analysis of recent articles that while such programs provided significant advancement on technology use and literacy, only modest gains were to be found in terms of student achievement. Project RED, an advocacy group, is more bullish, releasing the results of a survey at ISTE 2010 that claims that students at 1:1 schools outperform those at non-1:1 schools on several measures. Unfortunately, lead contributors to Project RED include Intel and Apple, both of which obviously benefit from increased 1:1 computing.
So what is the real truth? The difficulty with parsing this lies in the fact that many varied factors impact individual student performance. It’s often difficult to ascertain, particularly when there is likely a Hawthorne Effect at play. However, the real issue is that technology is simply a tool: it is a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself. In the aforementioned The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, one big theme emerged: the success of 1:1 computing initiatives hinged largely on the individual classroom teacher. Proper training and professional development of those teachers was crucial to any program’s success. We can’t simply place laptops into the hands of students and expect that singular action to improve anything but potentially technology literacy. Rather, teachers must be taught how to leverage these tools in the classroom.
Much of the talk surrounding technology in education has been on transferrable versus transformative use. In a transferrable use, teachers simply continue to do what they have always done, except with new digital means. A teacher who is typing his overhead slides into a PowerPoint is engaging is this transferrable use. The question is how to get the use to be transformative: to use the technology to teach students in new and interesting ways. If a 1:1 program is to be successful in improving student achievement, it must be used in that transformative way. As long as the purchase of laptops for students predates or occurs simultaneously with the purchase for teachers, we are likely to continue to see transference instead of transformation. And, for as long as that continues, today’s laptop treasures will continue to be tomorrow’s trash.