Schools Plug In to Technology Trend: Student Laptops

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When 19 5th graders at the Mott Hall School in New York City's Community School District 6 go on summer break later this month, they'll each take home a laptop computer.

The students, from a single English class at the Harlem school, have already used the laptops for eight months under a pilot project in which parents help pay for the expensive machines.

In one learning activity, the youngsters used the machines to create reports on the merchandising of movies.

They might just as well have studied the merchandising of laptops to schools.

Not too long ago, full-featured laptop computers were considered tools mainly for professionals or computer enthusiasts willing to pay higher prices for the compact machines. Most schools and families set their sights on full-sized computers, which have more vibrant color screens and finger-friendly keyboards--at a much lower sticker price.

But interest in school laptops has grown recently, fueled by product improvements and campaigns by several educational software and hardware makers.

The Microsoft Corp., based in Redmond, Wash., and laptop manufacturer Toshiba America Information Systems, of Irvine, Calif., are touting the Mott Hall experiment and laptop projects at 51 other public and private schools nationwide as examples of what they call "anytime, anywhere learning."

Another company, NETSchools Corp., is offering a comprehensive, tailored package of laptops for every student and teacher at a school, plus management software and an infrared network that transfers data throughout a classroom, reducing the need for wiring.

The cost is about $1,600 per student or $1 million a school, said Thomas W. Greaves, the president and chief executive officer of the Mountain-View, Calif., company.

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested in 1995 that needy American families should get a tax credit to buy laptops, many commentators dismissed the idea as a let-them-eat-cake proposal.

But some educators now say laptops are the wave of the future.

Anthony Amato, the superintendent of Community District 6, said in an interview that take-home laptops can extend learning into after-school hours and level the academic playing field for low-income students.

Other proponents say the machines can restore to classrooms the flexibility that fixed, full-sized computers have taken away. Laptops can be shifted around the classroom or outdoors; a single room doesn't have to be devoted to a computer lab.

Tony Truillo, the superintendent of the Ysleta, Texas, district, which is one of NETSchools' first potential customers, said he will soon propose formally to the school board to install the program next year at two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school--and possibly several more schools over the next few years.

He said laptops alone would be inadequate without the infrared network, which will be able to deliver all of the school system's software to any student.

But other educators warn that laptops might be education's next wasteful fad.

Not only are laptops more expensive than stand-alone computers with comparable features, they are also more susceptible to breakage, loss, and theft. To counter those problems, schools are buying extended warranties and insurance. Some say that when students own the machines, they take greater care of them.

Harvey Barnett, the technology director for the Cupertino (Calif.) Union School District, cautioned educators to avoid getting swept up in the enthusiasm about laptops. "It becomes about the technology, not about what it is kids should be doing."

He said the fact that business workers find laptops indispensable doesn't mean that students should. Many important student tasks do not involve computers, such as using math manipulatives, doing "hands on" science, reading a book, and creating art projects. "Almost everything you can think of has a nontechnology component," Mr. Barnett said.

Classes that emphasize student writing could use inexpensive word processors that cost just a fraction of what a multimedia laptop does, he added.

Mr. Barnett, who is retiring this summer to become a technology consultant, also cautions that schools might do students a disservice if they teach them to learn with laptops but then withdraw the devices over the summer or when students advance to another grade level or school.

That's one reason why New York's Mr. Amato plans to have students end up owning their laptops.

The parents of the Mott Hall students are splitting the $70 monthly cost of the laptops with the district; a community foundation has helped some make their payments. Under a lease contract that must still be approved by the central office, parents would be able to purchase them for $1 after three years.

Since September, only one parent payment has been sent in late.

School officials expect that three or four other Mott Hall classes, and 20 of the community district's 26 schools, will join the laptop project this fall, said Julia Cox, the District 6 laptop coordinator.

--ANDREW TROTTER[email protected]

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