Lessons on Laptops

Boot Them Up or Boot Them Out?

Oswaldo Pancho lives with his mother and sister in a cramped low-income housing project in upper Manhattan. They rely on welfare checks and food stamps. His mother hopes he will work his way out of poverty, although she has her doubts.

But last November, Oswaldo's sixth-grade class at Intermediate School 218 quietly undertook a bold educational experiment aimed at catapulting its mostly poor, minority, and computer-illiterate students into the emerging high-tech job market. The school assigned each student a $2,000 laptop computer.

Teacher Theresa Velazquez says the laptop has allowed Oswaldo to write longer and more thoughtful assignments. For him, it made school "funner."

"It's better, because writing gets boring already," says Oswaldo.

No one took House Speaker Newt Gingrich seriously in 1995 when he proposed putting a laptop computer in the hands of every schoolchild in America. Yet in isolated pockets around the country, it's happening at a frenzied pace, in both private and public schools.

Software and computer makers in the last two years have encouraged 250 middle and high schools to lease or loan the computers to about 40,000 students nationwide, according to Microsoft Corp. The idea is so popular with parents that many districts have plans to double or even triple the number of participants by next fall.

Until recently, only a handful of elite private schools could afford laptops. But as the price gap between textbooks and portable computers narrows, educators at many different schools are experimenting. Officials in Texas have even proposed replacing textbooks with CD-ROMs to save money.

According to John Slatin, director of the Institute for Technology and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin, "The idea of laptops for every student is a very interesting one if you're worried that there are gross disparities between upper-middle-class kids who have computers at home and kids who don't."

But critics say that in the rush to replace paper with circuitry, schools may try to make technology the focus of every lesson. Laptops are still too expensive to be distributed equitably throughout the public schools, and, some argue, too cumbersome to use in the classroom.

More training for teachers

Teachers at I.S. 218 say they are not getting the guidance they need to work computers into the curriculum. They attended a 10-hour training seminar in Microsoft software, but still feel unprepared to teach with it. In the absence of a strategy, the teachers say, the devices have actually distracted many students from learning their ABCs.

"If you can't read, write and do math, what good is a computer?" asks Sarah Pitari, who teaches sixth-grade math at I.S. 218. "The laptop is a novelty. The essence of the program is being lost."

Ms. Velazquez, Oswaldo's humanities teacher, wants the laptop program to succeed. She opens her classroom 45 minutes before school every day so her students can practice. They are thankful that they no longer have to rewrite drafts of their compositions by hand.

Other teachers have had the opposite experience. "I get more work out of them in pen and paper," says Valerie Valentine, another humanities teacher. "It's not helping them to learn how to read. I'm not sure exactly what it's helping them to learn, if anything."

"I've just about stopped using the computer in class, because the kids are so distracted by the computers themselves," Ms. Valentine says. "I think it's the corporate world manipulating the public school system. It's a big show."

But to Janice Gordon, who started using the laptops at Mott Hall Middle School, District Six's magnet school, "The self-esteem of the children has increased dramatically, and when you have increased self-esteem, you're going to have increased academic achievement." (See related story, right.)

The district has laptop classrooms in all eight middle schools, and by June it expects to have 1,550 students in the program. It eventually hopes to include all middle schoolers.

On a large scale, that would be difficult. At $2,000 each, it would cost more than a half a billion dollars to equip every sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grader in New York City with a laptop. But Board of Education administrators say laptops will soon become affordable.

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.

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."

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