Published Online: July 2, 2007

Laptops and Results

An article published in early May in The New York Times, “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” has many education leaders, school boards and keepers of the public treasury wondering about the efficacy of pursuing one-to-one computing in America's schools.

I read the report with no small amount of surprise and, admittedly, a great deal of dismay. Ironically, just three days before the story appeared, I had successfully defended my Ph.D dissertation, which supports the premise that middle and high school laptop programs may be exactly what is needed in order to level the digital playing field between teen boys and girls as they prepare to work in a world “flattened” (as Thomas Friedman would say) by computer technology.

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My dissertation is based on the growing concern that there are not enough women currently being prepared to fill the high tech jobs that have been and continue to be created by the computer science/information technology industry. Jobs are actually going vacant (or being moved offshore) because there are not enough trained individuals of either sex to fill them all; and projections suggest a 40 percent growth in this industry (compared to an average 14 percent growth in the economy overall) through 2014. Women in particular are in short supply, and this is cause for concern because it means that women are excluding themselves from excellent employment opportunities with high paying salaries.

My study points to the possibility that laptop programs—especially in middle school—could help girls become more comfortable with technology and give them new career possibilities. Scrapping one-to-one laptop initiatives is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater and could have many far-reaching negative and unintended consequences beyond what has been considered by those school systems currently planning to discontinue their laptop programs.

I would contend that school administrators who complain that laptops are not producing the test score gains they hoped for have focused on the wrong goals for our New Millennium classrooms. Used properly as an instructional tool—not as a means to a single end—individual student computers can do much to promote digital literacy and the "flat world" skills identified as critically important for success in the 21st century.

My study looked at the various theories that attempt to explain the shortage of women in the field of technology and computer science. One explanation offered is “computer anxiety,” which is reportedly higher among middle school girls than boys. Several of these studies even point to a declining interest in computers among middle school girls.

Boys tend to see computers as toys intended for their personal gaming pleasure. The evidence suggests that girls are much less interested in computer games, which are most often aimed at the "boy market." It may also be that girls don't want to compete for classroom computers that boys tend to dominate; or don't want to appear to be too smart or be labeled as computer "geeks," so they shy away from being too good at or too interested in computers. There are also the host of social issues that arise as middle school girls navigate the complicated business of figuring out how to fit in and how to be popular.

I work for a school division in Virginia that launched one of the first (and one of the largest) laptop initiatives in the country in 2001. For my dissertation, I got permission to survey the eighth graders in the district's ten middle schools about their attitudes toward computers and computer technology.

Girls in the study reported feeling virtually no anxiety around their use of computers; they furthermore reported enjoying their computers just as much as the boys did.

Out of a potential 3,428 eighth grade students, I got back 2,077 completed surveys—a 60 percent return. My findings indicate that having access to computers for school and personal use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, seems to have had a positive impact on girls' attitudes toward computers and computer technology. Girls in the study reported feeling virtually no anxiety around their use of computers; they furthermore reported enjoying their computers just as much as the boys did.

There were statistical differences in boys' and girls' attitudes regarding computer importance, computer careers, and computer usage. Boys tend to think computers are more important than girls do. Girls use their computers for different purposes; and, in spite of having full-time access to their laptops, the girls in the study still don't report wanting to pursue careers at the same rate as boys.

I believe, however, that the absence of anxiety among girls in my study is significant and points to the need for a comparison study between the girls in a district with a laptop initiative and a district without a laptop initiative. The goal would be to see whether girls with unlimited access are perhaps more interested in computer careers than those who have to compete with others for computer time at school or at home.

In their final analysis, the school boards and central office administrators who are scrapping their laptop programs may be focusing on the wrong results. Like it or not, computers are here to stay and are going to remain part of the landscape of our society into the foreseeable future. We owe it to our young people to prepare them for the digital age that awaits them in the world of work. Discontinuing laptop programs because they have gotten expensive or don’t seem to be driving up standardized test scores is not going to make that reality go away.

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