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					> Saul Rockman

                                   Learning from
                  With ubiquitous computing trials starting up every
                   year, what have we learned about how laptops
                       affect what—and how—students learn?

                             hether it’s called a laptop program, one-        Providing computer access for every child has been tried
                             to-one computing, ubiquitous comput-          in various forms for about 15 years. Indiana’s Buddy
                             ing, or 24/7 access, schools and school       Project and Apple Computer’s ACOT program are two
                             districts around the country are explor-      pioneer efforts in which every student was provided with
              ing the benefits and challenges of what happens when         a computer at home. The impetus for today’s laptop
              every student has a laptop computer. As with every ef-       programs started seven years ago when Toshiba and Mi-
              fort to change schools, there are variations in how lap-     crosoft introduced the Anytime, Anywhere Learning
              top programs are designed, funded, and implemented,          program, begun a few years earlier in Australia. The ini-
              but the basic structure of a laptop program is that each     tiative grew quickly, capturing the imagination of both
              student in a classroom, a grade level, or an entire school   independent and public schools. For some, it was an ex-
              has a computer to use at school, and often, to take          pansion of the school’s existing technology program;
              home, too.                                                   for others, it was a dramatic way of introducing tech-
                 Our research group has been studying ubiquitous           nology to the school, leaping into an area that earlier had
              computing programs for the past 10 years. In that time,      been minimally supported. With the falling prices of
              we have learned a great deal about what happens to           laptops, more and more schools and school districts are
              teachers, to students, and to parents and community          considering initiating ubiquitous laptop programs.
              members when the power of one-to-one computing is               Large-scale, dramatic efforts, such as those in Maine
              made available. Our findings, and those of other re-         or in Henrico County, Va., have placed laptops in the
              searchers in this area, are reliable, and the conclusions    hands of tens of thousands of students. Other smaller lap-
              are clear. We consistently find substantive impacts on       top projects may engage only a single classroom or all
              teaching and learning, on teachers and students, yet we      the classrooms in a single grade. Many of these initiatives
              continue to have difficulty tying full-time access to com-   will expand their program from year to year, adding a
              puters to the outcomes of standardized tests currently in    grade level each year. For example, a school may start a
              use. Our belief is that, while computers are powerful in-    laptop program with the lowest grade in a building—the
              terventions for both students and teachers, what they do     seventh grade in a secondary school or the ninth grade
              with them is not what is tested.                             in a high school—and each year’s entering class will be

 24 • Fall 2003 • Threshold                                                                         
outfitted with a laptop. Growing the program from year to        academic performance, that standardized test scores will
year provides time for teacher training and the development      rise. As policymakers and community members increas-
and evolution of support and maintenance services.               ingly focus on rigorous assessment and adequate yearly
   Another recent strategy has been to acquire classroom sets    progress to drive instructional decisions, support for ubiq-
of laptops, stored on a recharging cart, so that any classroom   uitous laptops may be tied to these scores.
in a school can have an experience with ubiquitous com-             The answer to whether giving every student a laptop will
puting. Most times these class sets serve as a portable lab,     enhance student achievement on tests is—and always has
rather than offering                                                                                         been—a strong “it
continuing access at                                                                                         depends.” Those
home and in school.                                                                                          administrators and
As schools monitor                                                                                           board members
the program over                                                                                             who insist on a
time, many see the                                                                                           specific test score
benefit of permitting                                                                                        gain as the return
students to take the                                                                                         on investment are,
computers home at                                                                                            more likely than
the end of each                                                                                              not, going to be
school day and keep-                                                                                         disappointed. Au-
ing the computers                                                                                            thentic assessments
with a group of stu-                                                                                         may be a more re-
dents for several                                                                                            alistic strategy for
weeks at a time, so                                                                                          measuring the
they can benefit from                                                                                        value that laptops
full-time access.                                                                                            bring to the class-
   My best guessti-                                                                                          room, but the cost
mate is that one in                                                                                          and difficulty of
five school districts is                                                                                     this approach to
currently trying a                                                                                           testing militates
laptop program in                                                                                            against its use.
one or more of its                                                                                              Ubiquitous lap-
schools. The com-                                                                                            tops may not be
puter vendors like it,                                                                                       the direct tools for
as do many of the community advocates who see that tech-         teaching and learning what is on the tests, but they are as-
nology has an important role to play in teaching and learn-      sociated with learning strategies that show up on tests. Com-
ing, as well as helping to reduce the digital divide. It’s one   puters don’t provide content, they offer the tools to access,
of the most compelling school-change interventions we            manipulate, and organize content. This supports one of the
have seen in decades, but it isn’t about laptops—it’s about      other arguments for funding laptop initiatives: that students
what students do when they have full-time access to pow-         will be developing 21st-century skills as they apply technol-
erful tools, the same tools found in offices and on the desks    ogy to problem-solving, communications, self-management,
of professionals in all fields. These tools are the same ones    and thinking. How students use technology—for writing, on-
needed to accomplish the work of school: tools for writing,      line research, organizing information—appears more closely
conducting research, simulating problems, manipulating for-      tied to these 21st-century skills than to standardized tests.
mulae, making presentations, and organizing information.            Unfortunately, in most districts and states, students who
                                                                 have mastered composing and editing on the computer are
What Have We Proved?                                             required to take the writing portion of their high-stakes tests
There are numerous reasons that schools and school dis-          by hand rather than with their electronic tool. As students
tricts elect to initiate a laptop program; frequently, sev-      learn to take advantage of computers for writing, their
eral rationales are combined to win the endorsement of           writing strategies change—revisions in real time become
school boards and parents. Whether the program is shown          easier and accepted as a normal part of the process. When
to be successful in the end depends in large part on which       writing by hand, revisions are laborious. Consequently, less
rationale was the driving force behind it. While research        revising is done and the writing quality on their assessments
from the most recent laptop trials is too preliminary to         suffers. Enabling students to use the same technology tools
draw definitive conclusions, there is enough consistency         on their standardized assessments that they use for their
in their findings to help guide the expectations of other        everyday work will more closely match the assessments
laptop programs.                                                 with the 21st-century skills students are learning.
   Given the substantial investment required to initiate a          For some school systems, laptops that stay with the child
laptop program, many districts that adopt one expect that        in school and at home are a means of closing the digital di-
full-time access to technology will improve student              vide—now all students can have access to a computer and                              Photography by Getty Images                               Threshold • Fall 2003 • 25
             the Internet. Lack of a computer at home is associated with     they certainly learn more about technology from their
             less parental education and lower family income, with sin-      students (who are much more willing to put in the seat
             gle parent homes, and with Hispanic and African Amer-           time to master a piece of software). Many students
             ican families. Even when children in these families have        thrive in an environment where they have skills and
             access to home computers, the technology is often older         knowledge to share and to trade. Trading with a teacher
             and has less functionality and power than children’s home       provides them with a sense of pride and empower-
             computers in wealthier, better educated, and white house-       ment. The shift to students-as-teachers goes beyond
             holds. Because parents can learn along with their children      trading information. As students make presentations
             in laptop programs, these efforts may also promote eco-         about their projects, both the other students and the
             nomic growth, helping parents master technology and ob-         teacher are the audience for information and ideas that
             tain better jobs while helping communities move from            may be new to the entire group, since the range of in-
             the rust belt to the information economy.                       formation sources is dramatically widened through the
                Still another reason some districts desire to initiate a     Internet. Teachers also need to be wary consumers,
             laptop program is to shake up the system, putting into          since students no longer copy from the encyclopedia,
             place a large intervention that will motivate students          they cut and paste from a variety of Web sites.
             and cause teachers to think differently about teaching and         Laptop programs also influence teachers by increasing
             learning. But for all of these changes to result in improved    their collaboration with other teachers in their building.
                             teaching and learning, teachers, students,      Some of this collaboration is sharing information about
                             administrators, and even parents and com-       the technology and finding solutions to technical prob-
        B  lind              munity members must adjust to their
                             changing roles in the learning process.
                                                                             lems; a great deal more is sharing ideas about how to
                                                                             manage a room full of young people equipped with com-
    assessment of                                                            puters. This classroom management problem is exacerbated
                            Teachers and their Teaching                      by the recent adoption of wireless technology, providing
      prompted               The introduction of laptops for all stu-        high-speed access to the Internet all the time. Teachers need
        writing              dents is a considerable change in the av-       to quickly learn how to maintain the attention of stu-
                             erage classroom, especially for the teacher.    dents who have open laptops, how to deal with dead bat-
     found that              While there may be three or four com-           teries and damaged screens, and how to help students
                             puters in the back of the room, an open         learn about what is appropriate to do in school, rather than
        laptop               laptop on each desk is a dramatic shift         in the privacy of their home. Students looking at the Web
       students              from what a teacher normally sees. And for      sites of singers, movie and TV stars, sports teams, and cloth-
                             most, the first time is a little frightening.   ing manufacturers are more likely to be the problem than
      outscored              Just what do you say and do when every          students accessing sites on pornography and weapons.
                             one of your students has a computer in          Games might be even a bigger problem.
         their               front of him or her? Will they use it inap-        Teachers in laptop schools evolve and share classroom
     non-laptop              propriately? How do you change your les-        management strategies that work for them. As in most
                             sons to take advantage of the opportunities     classrooms where projects are common, there will always
    counterparts             that computers and Internet access offer?       be some noise and movement as students collaborate.
                                Very quickly, an observer in a laptop        However, when students are seated in spreadsheet fash-
    significantly.           classroom would see that there is less lec-     ion (rows and columns), teachers worry when they can’t
                             turing and more individual and group            see what is on computer screens. Some teachers take to
                             project work. Teachers discover that they       wandering around the classroom, which keeps students
             don’t have to provide all the information, that students        on task (and in line), and yields a secondary benefit in
             can gather much of what is needed from the Internet.            being more available to work with a student having trou-
             When teachers acknowledge that their students have the          ble with an assignment as they pass the student’s desk.
             tools to do a lot of the work of school (of both teaching       If students are working on individual tasks, those who
             and learning), they adopt a strategy that lets students work    finish early might have a list of Web-based problems to
             on their own more, or work in small groups to under-            tackle or be assigned a personal journal to write on the
             take projects in line with curriculum standards. Stu-           subject being studied. Other teachers turn to online ed-
             dents can do more work on their own and at their own            ucational games to provide practice in skills. And teach-
             pace, and the teachers can act more as consultants to them,     ers can always ask that the computers be closed (and some
             offering individualized suggestions, mid-course correc-         reading materials brought out).
             tions, and more frequent assessments of individual and
             group progress. Teachers are making use, or making              Students and their Learning
             greater use, of authentic assessments to evaluate the con-      For students, the changes are also substantial. While
             tent and design of technology-rich products developed           most have a computer at home (more than 70 percent
             by their students.                                              do), having access all day in school is both a novelty and
                Teachers also begin to see a shift in their role as in-      a challenge. How do students accomplish their work
             structional leader and master of all knowledge. First,          when they have a computer all the time? Is it just for school

26 • Fall 2003 • Threshold                                                                              
or, since they carry it home, is it for all the things stu-   counterparts significantly on all four dimensions.
dents want to do with a computer? School administra-            Laptop students also seem to be better learners.
tors and family members worry— will they lose it, will        Among the things they tend to do more (in compari-
it get stolen?                                                son to students who don’t have laptop access) are tak-
   In a laptop classroom, there is much more independ-        ing notes while they read, underlining or highlighting
ent learning since students now have access to powerful       a main idea, writing together with other students,
tools for accomplishing it. As independent learners, they     re-reading papers before turning them in, and using in-
also have to take on                                                                             formation from a va-
more responsibility for                                                                          riety of sources. These
their learning. Students                                                                         activities appear to be
working independently                                                                            associated with better
have to monitor their                                                                            learning and, one
own progress, identify                                                                           would hope, would
the tools and resources                                                                          show up on tests of ac-
they need to use, and                                                                            ademic performance
know when to seek                                                                                eventually.
help. Not all students                                                                              Individual students
do equally well in this                                                                          also benefit by serving
context, but many will                                                                           as formal and infor-
surprise their teachers                                                                          mal tutors of both
with their improved                                                                              peers and teachers. In
performance. Because                                                                             many cases, students
there is much more                                                                               in laptop programs
project-based teaching,                                                                          also serve as teachers
students are also more                                                                           of their parents and
likely to collaborate,                                                                           siblings at home. Full-
working with one an-                                                                             time computer access
other to accomplish a common goal. With project-based         provides them the opportunity to become experts in a
teaching comes presentations, so students are mastering       range of software applications and this mastery, when
presentation software and are getting regular practice in     shared with others, enhances self-esteem and the sense
standing before their peers and teachers to inform and        of personal accomplishment. For disadvantaged stu-
enlighten them.                                               dents, this benefit is a powerful incentive to be part of a
   Developing the ability to learn independently, col-        continuing program, to participate in school, and to
laborate with peers to accomplish work, and commu-            maintain good grades.
nicate the conclusions of your work are the core of
21st-century skills, and a highly valued set of compe-        Changes for Parents and Community
tencies in the world outside of school. These accom-          There is often an enrollment surge in schools that an-
plishments are seen in many laptop programs, especially       nounce a laptop initiative, suggesting that parents see
those that permit students to take their computer home        the value of their children having access to technology.
in the evening. Full-time access seems to encourage           Laptop schools regularly report greater parental in-
responsible ownership of the tools to do the work that        volvement (at least for the first few years). They see
students have, and students are likely to differentiate be-   higher attendance at PTA meetings; increased
tween using the computer for schoolwork and using it          communication via e-mail, phone, or face-to-face
for non-school activities. Our research has shown that        meetings; parent participation in tutoring programs
students will use their home computers for games and          and parent-student computer classes offered through
instant messaging, while saving their school comput-          the school; and more volunteering at the schools.
ers for only the schoolwork.                                     In some of the programs we’ve examined, parents and
   One core academic area that is clearly influenced by       community members became increasingly involved in the
access to ubiquitous computing is writing. Students           teaching and learning process. They influenced the cur-
are asked to write in almost all their classes and com-       riculum by taking an active role in daily classroom ac-
puters afford easier editing and rewriting, motivating        tivities as well as acting as resources for project-based
students to edit more and write more. One of our stud-        learning activities. Parents and community members
ies showed that students in laptop classrooms wrote           also developed their digital-literacy skills. Parents, ex-
more than those in non-laptop classrooms and that             tended family, and community members (especially sen-
their writing was qualitatively better. Blind assessment      iors) benefited from the opportunity to interact with
of prompted writing, using a rubric covering content,         laptop computers and the Internet at home as well as par-
organization, language/voice/style, and mechanics,            ticipated in school-sponsored workshops on specific
found that laptop students outscored their non-laptop         software programs.                                                                                       Threshold • Fall 2003 • 27
             Learning from Laptops
             continued from page 27                                         Resources
                                                                            Keefe, Dave and Andy Zucker. “Ubiquitous Computing
             At the End of the Day…                                         Projects: A Brief History.” SRI International, 2003.
             After his school’s laptop program had been in place for

             a year or two, one headmaster was asked to explain the         Maine Learns. The Maine Learning Technology Initiative.
             substantial increase in student test scores. The curricu-
             lum hadn’t changed, the teachers were the same, and the        This Web site for and by educators offers resources for
             only difference was the introduction of laptops for all stu-   teaching with laptops.
             dents.“The computers did make a difference,” he told me.       ROCKMAN ET AL. Web     site.
             “We promoted ourselves as a laptop school and enrolled
             a better group of students.”                                   Evaluation information on the evolution, use, and impact
                                                                            of laptop programs, including the following reports,
                Obviously, this kind of improvement is not the change       which are also available directly from Microsoft.
             we seek when introducing laptops to a school. But lap-         ———. “Report of a Laptop Program Pilot,” June 1997.
             top programs are an invitation to change—change what 
             teachers do and how they do it; change what students do        ———. “Powerful Tools for Schooling: Second Year Study
             and how they do it. The effects of laptop programs ap-         of the Laptop Program,” 1998.
             pear to be the greatest on those 21st-century skills that
                                                                            ———. “A More Complex Picture: Laptop Use and Im-
             make a difference over time and are the necessary prepa-
                                                                            pact in the Context of Changing Home and School Ac-
             ration for productive work in school and beyond.               cess,” 1999.
                Surprisingly, the current press for improved test scores
             hasn’t lessened the enthusiasm for ubiquitous comput-
                                                                            State of Maine. Maine Learning Technology Initiative.
             ing. Whether it is seen as cutting edge or just necessary
             in today’s world, ubiquitous computing has an appeal that      Includes downloadable Task Force report evaluating the
             will sustain its presence in many schools.                <    first year of Maine’s statewide laptop program.

28 • Fall 2003 • Threshold                                                                            

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