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District's Laptop 'Plan' Is Idea Whose Time Has Not Come

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School officials in Fairfax County, Va., were smarting last week from a public outcry over news reports that the district would soon ask parents of 6th graders in some schools to purchase expensive laptop computers for their children.

"Someday I'm going to write a book about how a fairly accurate news story generates a controversy like this," said Dolores Bohen, the district spokeswoman. "I'm no novice in how stories take on a life of their own, but this was phenomenal."

The incident is an object lesson for districts contemplating new technology initiatives.

The flap began when The Washington Post reported in a front-page story on May 10 that the principals of five elementary schools had discussed whether to ask parents of more than 400 6th graders to purchase $1,800 laptop computers for their children, perhaps as early as the fall.

The story was picked up by local radio stations, which canvassed parents about the idea during their morning commutes and reported reactions that ranged from surprise to outrage.

The publicity also produced a flood of calls to school board members, many of whom, recently elected to their posts and sensing parent anger, immediately disavowed the plan.

In its May 11 edition, the Post reported both the angry reaction and the district's decision to scrap the idea.

Caution Urged

Officials of the 143,000-student suburban district view the incident as a textbook case of how public misunderstanding combined with a bit of technophobia can derail efforts to bring technology into the classroom.

But observers in several districts with advanced technology programs said the furor suggests that educators must proceed cautiously in proposing technological innovations, in part because parents tend to be skeptical of any change that does not reflect their own experience in school.

They also said Fairfax school officials likely erred in discussing specific details of a concept that was still in development--particularly a dollar figure for the equipment--and that was likely to provoke a negative reaction.

The principals' discussion was preliminary and was never a formal proposal, said John Gay, who heads the district's technology office.

Mr. Gay said he broached the idea with the principals after hearing a presentation by a group of Australian educators at a conference in March. Students in Australia, he said, routinely use laptop machines.

The Fairfax County principals were discussing how the use of laptops might influence instruction and whether such an idea was affordable, Mr. Gay said.

"But," he conceded, "all of that presupposes that the community believes that the children should have access to the technology. If they don't believe that, then that's a problem."

And at least for some parents in Fairfax County, a mostly affluent, well-educated community on the outskirts of Washington, that indeed proved to be a problem.

"What I see as the real threat on the technology bandwagon is content being abandoned at the expense of the bells and whistles," Lisa Boccetti, a parent with a kindergartner in one of the targeted schools, told a reporter.

Cost a Concern

But parents seemed equally concerned about the cost of such a program.

Lita Levine Kleger, whose daughter will be a 6th grader next year, said she could not afford to provide all three of her children with laptops should the idea be expanded to all grades.

"We are thinking about getting a computer, but having a requirement for my daughter to have it to go to public school is unacceptable," she told The Associated Press.

Mr. Gay said the $1,800 figure was cited for purposes of discussion. The district could have negotiated for less expensive equipment or leased or loaned computers to students.

Other districts across the nation already lend or lease computers to students. A program in Indiana, for example, last year installed computers in about 6,000 homes throughout the state. And the Edison Project, a for-profit company that operates four public schools serving about 2,000 students, equips every student and teacher with a home computer. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1996.)

A growing number of colleges and universities, including Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, require students to own computers.

Frank Withrow, the technology adviser for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, said that as technology becomes more affordable, districts are likely to require students to purchase personal computers or will furnish them for student use.

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