Laptops as a Fourth 'R'

Tuesday Maine booted up a giant experiment in learning. It loaned a laptop computer to every seventh-grader in public school.

And the 17,000 Apple iBooks even come with wireless connections, plenty of technical support, and training for teachers who fear they can't keep up with today's tech-toy kids.

Gov. Angus King, eager to give his state a competitive edge in high-tech jobs, sees early computer literacy just as imperative as reading, writing, and arithmetic. His state has tried to learn from the mistakes of other schools that have introduced computers in classrooms.

Nothing in educational fads can substitute for an inspiring teacher or the deep thinking required in reading a good, nonvirtual book. Still, Maine's $37 million experiment is well timed to take advantage of the Internet and education software. If all goes well, eighth-graders will get laptops next year, as well.

A pilot program in a few Maine schools last spring showed that teacher training is essential to avoid computers from being used just for watching movies, playing games, or chatting on Instant Messenger.

Teachers can make sure the computers aren't just another (albeit easier) way to collect facts and make splashy presentations.

Just putting a violin in a classroom won't turn a student into a musician. Computers by themselves won't create scholars. Computers can be thinking tools, a sophisticated way to expand a child's ability to analyze and explore. Many school officials from around the world are waiting to see how effectively Maine can achieve that critical educational goal.

The pilot program also revealed an early burst of student enthusiasm for learning. Some evidence showed better attendance and more discipline among students. Some low-profile "nerds" were able to shine in class. Since many students already know computers well, teaching will have to become more collaborative.

Not all schooling can be done with computers. Many classes, such as science lab, need to be done in the real world. And laptops should not distance teachers from students.

Maine is doing a service for the nation by this bold experiment. Computers are becoming too common to be left out of classrooms.

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