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Lessons on Laptops

Boot Them Up or Boot Them Out?

(Page 2 of 2)

Most of the cost is offset by the district's share of a $150-million, citywide technology grant called Project Smart Schools. Each family also pays $10 a month for insurance. If payments lag behind, students may not take computers home.

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Other public-school districts have taken a more controversial approach. In order to afford to lease 1,300 laptops, parents and businesses in Beaufort, S.C., established a foundation to provide subsidies to needy students, says Anne Carver, co-director of educational technology for the district.

But the money did not cover all the costs, and even those students who are eligible for free school lunch must pay $15 a month for a laptop lease. Not all families joined the program. As a result, teachers must plan lessons around group projects, so that students can share computers in class. Ms. Carver says that despite the new rich-poor divide, the change was positive.

"The teachers are more cheerleader than the source of knowledge," Carver says. "The best thing they can do is step out of the way and let the students work."

Texas thinks even bigger

While no school district in the country has yet purchased laptops for all its students, Texans are debating an even further-reaching plan. Last fall Jack Christie, chairman of the Texas Board of Education, proposed buying laptops for all 3.8 million public-school students in the state. He says that in the next six years, Texas has budgeted $1.8 billion for textbooks, roughly what it would cost to lease or buy a $500 laptop for each student. CD-ROM textbooks, Mr. Christie said, would cost about $1.25 apiece to update; textbooks can cost $60. That plan is stalled in the state Legislature.

Schools are also using "edutainment" programs - games with instructional content. I.S. 218's Business Studies Academy, the part of the school that uses the laptops in four classes, has lent some students games that simulate commerce.

Student Jennifer Nuez says she spends more than two hours every weekday and five hours on the weekends playing a business-management game on her computer called "Hot Dogs Cookin'."

"It's fun because it's a better way to learn," Jennifer says. "Some kids think it's boring to read. With laptops they're going to be much more into homework."

Clifford Stoll, author of the bestseller "Silicon Snake Oil," warns in an interview that if every student had a laptop, edutainment would threaten to take over education. Laptops, he says, are a more dangerous classroom fad than movies in the 1920s, radio in the '30s, and TV in the '70s. "What are these kids in sixth grade learning from a laptop?" Mr. Stoll asks. "They're learning that every question has a right answer. They're learning that it's unnecessary to read and think when multimedia systems deliver dancing graphics right in front of their eyes."

All four of the teachers at I.S. 218 say working with laptops is a challenge. Teachers may spend time scolding students who surreptitiously launch video games. They also debug programs and solve printing problems. These glitches affect the students.

"I don't think they're slowing down my classroom so much anymore because I don't use them," says Kevin Kinkade, who teaches science. Most of his computer assignments are completed at home.

When kids take their computers home, however, they become targets for robbery. The school's insurance stipulates that no laptop may leave school unaccompanied by an adult, so parents have organized escort patrols. "We know where they are every minute of every day," says Giulia Cox, laptop-program coordinator for District Six. "We joke that these are the most cared-for kids in the New York school system."

All students have modems and will soon get free Internet accounts. But some, like Oswaldo, have no phone lines at home. Oswaldo shows off a drawing he did on his laptop of what he imagines Lake Victoria looks like. He is also teaching his mother to use a computer for the first time. "The children are very excited," Velazquez says. "You can see the brightness in their faces. Children have a way with computers."