Mixed marks on giving laptops to students

As more schools adopt the idea, debate ensues - even in Microsoft country.

Most parents are familiar with the morning checklist as their kids get ready to go off to school. Lunch, check. Homework, check. Laptop ... laptop?

They aren't yet as ubiquitous as gel pens and steno pads, but laptop computers are starting to be required accouterments for kids as early as middle school.

It's a phenomenon that's hitting upper-crust private schools first - such as Lakeside School here in Seattle, the alma mater of (who else?) Bill Gates. But even public schools are striking deals with Compaq, Apple Computer, and other manufacturers in a rush to get this icon of the 21st century into the backpacks of as many students as possible.

Still, as is often the case when something is "required," the laptops-for-students push is meeting with some hard opposition - even in the hometown of Microsoft and on the leafy campus of Lakeside.

Here, a raucous debate has erupted between administrators and parents over the prep school's recent decision that all high school students should have their own laptops. At issue: Does the technology, at $2,000 a pop, really improve learning?

School officials (and Mr. Gates, of course) think it does. They say a two-year laptop test-pilot in Lakeside's middle grades found that students became better organized and had more consistent access to software programs ranging from geometry to writing.

"The educational case for laptops has never been made," says Doug Schuler, a Lakeside parent who is a computer engineer. "If there's an [academic] deficit, it's that students can't do critical reasoning and can't analyze. These capabilities have nothing to do with a piece of machinery. Laptops are a distraction, a PR exercise."

It's a fight that is beginning to echo across the land. In the Seattle area alone, about a dozen private schools require students to have their own laptops.

Public schools cannot make the same requirement, but a few nationwide are experimenting with mandatory laptop or hand-held computers through combinations of government funding and private grants. Many advocates say laptops in schools is a promising way to end the digital divide between the races.

That's one reason middle and high schools in Virginia's Henrico County will be distributing laptops to all students over the next three years. The initiative, believed to be the first in the nation for a public-school district, is possible because of a $18.6 million partnership with Apple.

"We are living in a digital world, and we want to level the playing field," says Janet Binns, spokeswoman for Henrico County schools. Families are asked to pay a $50 insurance fee to cover laptop loss, theft, or damage - and she says feedback so far from parents has been positive. "We're not going to get rid of textbooks. This is a teaching-and-learning initiative."

On a more limited scale than Henrico County, all 179 eighth-graders at Piscataquis Community Middle School in Gilford, Maine, have laptops. Gov. Angus King Jr. has made giving a laptop to every seventh- and eighth-grader a cornerstone of Maine's education policy. Despite opposition in the legislature, Mr. King established a $50 million endowed technology fund, with the income going toward buying more laptops.

Even so, that translates to only about $500 per eighth-grader, or about one-third to one-fourth of a laptop's cost. "Even with $50 million, it's not enough to do with it what they want to," says Keith Harvie of the Maine Education Association, the teachers union. "Cost is a big problem, as well as maintenance, and training for staff."

Other school districts have nixed the idea of mandatory laptops after meeting strong opposition. "We met with so much cold water that it was really a one-day headline," says Ken Reinshuttle, executive director of the Fairfax Education Association in Virginia's Fairfax County.

The county, with 165,000 students in grades K through 12, has the highest per-capita income in the US. He cites affordability for families and theft as the top concerns. "We'd love to see mandatory laptops, but we don't think the time has come yet."

"Computers in schools have been oversold," says Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban, a former high school teacher, school superintendent, and author of "Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920." "The high expectations of vendors, corporate executives, and techno-enthusiasts have not been met in greater efficiencies in teaching and learning, revolutionizing of classroom instruction, or higher achievement that can be attributed to the uses of computers."

While a few teachers have pioneered imaginative ways to reach students through computers, the majority, pressed by demands of classroom schedules and district requirements, underuse technology, he adds.

At Lakeside, the parents' campaign against mandatory laptops ended recently in a wary compromise. Beginning this fall, the prep school will require laptops for students in Grades 7 through 9, and phase in the requirement for higher grades in subsequent years, says Marianne Picha, Lakeside communications director.

The parents' group, and some students and faculty, say the phase-in does not address issues of inadequate teacher training - or time lost to booting up computers, viruses, theft, upgrading programs, and keeping students on task rather than e-mailing friends or shopping online.

Although Lakeside administrators insist that laptops give students 24-hour access to learning, skeptics remain. Quips one parent: "Kids already have 24-hour access to learning. It's called books."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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