Classroom Technology

Laptops for All Doesn’t Mean They’re Always Used

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 07, 2000 10 min read

A group of 8th graders is learning about the Great Depression at the Mott Hall School in Harlem when their English teacher appears in the doorway. “Please bring your laptops next period,” Rani P. Karnik, a student-teacher from Barnard College, announces.

“You should have told us yesterday,” one girl grumbles as soon as Ms. Karnik slips out of earshot.

Like all of Mott Hall’s 450 students, the girl has her own laptop computer, paid for in part by the school system. But she didn’t bring it to school with her this morning, and neither did 12 of her 18 classmates.

Five of them didn’t have a choice: Their laptops aren’t working.

Most days, the students say, they’re more likely to have their computers in class. Still, the episode calls into question some of the assumptions behind the growing number of initiatives to provide every student with his or her own laptop.

Many education technology advocates argue that most public schools, which have an average of one multimedia computer for every 9.8 students, aren’t equipped to harness the true power of technology. But if every student had a computer, they say, it could transform learning.

“The ability to do multidimensional instruction in the classroom is increased by some order of magnitude,” said Irvin S. Hamer Jr., a New York City board of education member who has been championing a plan this spring for a citywide school laptop program. “All the things people have talked about for years and years about instruction—small-group instruction, individualized instruction—is now possible with an incredible amount of coherence and flexibility.”

Mott Hall, a magnet school for gifted and talented 4th through 8th graders, is this city’s best approximation of what can be accomplished through the one-computer-per-child approach, said Mr. Hamer, who has visited the school three times.

But he and staff members at the school acknowledge the challenge of keeping the 7-pound machines in good repair, motivating students to lug them to school every day, and getting teachers to use them regularly and meaningfully.

“Like anything else, how you use your laptops [in the classroom] has to be given a lot of thought. It takes a tremendous amount of time,” said Mirian Acosta-Sing, the school’s principal.

“You’re not going to put a laptop in front of a student or teacher and expect that it will have a tremendous impact on their learning—that their test scores are going to go up by 50 points,” she continued. “But I do feel [the laptop program] does enhance, it does enrich, it does allow for some creative delivery in the classroom.”

Use Varies Greatly

Support for laptop programs is growing across the country. Gov. Angus S. King of Maine recently proposed buying a laptop for every 7th grader in the state, starting in 2002; a committee created jointly by the governor and legislature is considering the idea. The New York City plan, which the school board will vote on later this year, would provide a laptop for every 4th grader in the system, beginning in 2001. (“Plan To Give Laptops to Maine 7th Graders Faces Doubtful Future,” March 15, 2000.)

About 800 schools already have laptop programs through the Anytime Anywhere Learning initiative launched by Microsoft Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. in 1996. Another company, Atlanta-based Netschools Corp., has sold laptops for one-computer-per-student programs to 38 schools.

Supporters of such efforts often point to Mott Hall as a showcase. The school has been offering laptops to its students, either on loan or at a reduced price, ever since it was selected as a pilot site for Anytime Anywhere Learning. New York’s Community School District 6, which includes Mott Hall, now has laptops for 4,500 of its 30,000 students.

In most cases, the district—with the help of federal Title I funds or other sources—and their parents split the cost of leasing the $2,000 computers, with parents paying $36 per month for three years. At the end of that period, the parents have the option of purchasing the computers for $1. A small percentage of the computers are owned by the district and provided only on loan to students.

Microsoft filmed Mott Hall students for a series of TV commercials that aired across the country in 1998.

“The campaign was looking for places where software truly empowered people,” said Jane K. Broom, the program manager for Anytime Anywhere Learning and an employee of the Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. “Mott Hall bubbled up to the top of the list. You can’t leave that school without feeling energized and excited about those kids and what their future is.”

Most visitors would agree. But just because every child at Mott Hall has a computer doesn’t mean that the computers are used by every teacher, or that they’re used every day, as the experiences of an 8th grade class on a recent Wednesday suggest.

In their social studies and mathematics classes, the students left their laptops under their desks. In a community-service class, one girl used a laptop and TV monitor to show the class a World Wide Web site she had created about volunteering at a local elementary school. In science, the students used laptops in groups for word processing or generating charts and graphs, to revise project reports based on their teachers’ written comments.

In English, the students created empty tables on their laptop screens in the beginning of the period, conducted a discussion about the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and returned to the laptops only during the last few minutes of the period to plug in a few words.

With the exception of the science class, where the computers were truly used as a tool, the fact that the students had laptops seemed irrelevant.

That perception was partly due to the timing of the visit, students explained.

On Mondays, they said, they attend school only in the mornings and then do community service in the afternoons, so they don’t take their laptops to school at all. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they typically use laptops only for group work, so they rotate who in the group carries a laptop to school.

“The only time you see everyone with the computers is if it’s a computer day,” said 14-year-old Zoila Primo. She said that would be on Thursdays or Fridays, when technology-skills classes are scheduled. She said regular teachers also tend to plan any classroom activities that would require every student to have a computer for those days.

But even then, it’s likely that a few of the machines in each class would be out of order, teachers and students here said.

Keeping the laptops functioning is a big problem, Ms. Acosta-Sing agreed. She’s frustrated that the board of education hasn’t yet paid for a full-time person at the school to handle technical support.

How long repairs take depends on the seriousness of the problem, Zoila observed. “If it’s a cracked screen, it can take two months,” she said. “If it’s a sticky keyboard, it usually takes a couple of days.”

No Fooling Around

Integration of technology into regular classroom activities is occurring in pockets at Mott Hall.

Ms. Acosta-Sing said that, overall, the laptop program has led to more collaborative learning among students and more student-centered—rather than teacher-centered— learning.

Each of the 6th graders in one teacher’s science class, for example, has created a Power Point presentation about a system of the human body chosen by the student. On a recent Tuesday, students were working in teams to prepare their presentations and then to teach each other what they had learned by gathering information from the Internet, electronic encyclopedias, and books.

Eleven-year-old Fabio Liriano matter-of-factly clicked through his presentation about the reproductive system. When he ran into a slide he wasn’t quite happy with, he deftly searched a Grolier encyclopedia CD-ROM for better information.

He and his classmates don’t waste time on their laptops in class, he said. “We don’t fool around with the computers at school—it’s serious.”

Ms. Acosta-Sing said she doesn’t expect laptops to be used every minute of the day. “We say [to teachers], ‘We don’t want you to force it. We don’t want you to use it for the sake of using it.’ ”

At the same time, she said, she and her staff try to keep the goal of technology integration in the forefront by having computer-adept teachers share lessons and by providing other kinds of professional support.

The school has three full-time computer teachers who teach technology-skills classes. They also often teach alongside regular teachers to help them weave computer use into classroom activities.

And in hiring new teachers, Ms. Acosta-Sing said, “we’re saying, ‘If you’re not willing to use technology in the classroom, maybe this is not the place for you.’”

‘Fun To Do Homework’

Mott Hall administrators make no claims that the laptop program has improved students’ test scores.

A study by Metis Associates Inc. of the first class of 5th graders to participate in the laptop program shows that their math and reading scores on standardized tests stayed the same over two years, though the scores of students without laptops slipped. So far, the research on laptops’ academic effects is inconclusive.

But Eszter Boros, the school’s 8th grade communications arts and English teacher, believes that this year’s 8th graders are “better writers” than previous classes, which did not have laptops, she said. “The idea of rewriting and becoming a better writer doesn’t frighten them,” Ms. Boros said, “because writing has become so much easier.”

The laptops give the children a sense of pride and bring “a professional feel” to the classroom, she added.

Eighth grade social studies teacher Ann Marie B. Chinnery disagreed, however, saying she hasn’t seen any improvement in writing skills. The laptop program at Mott Hall hasn’t been around long enough to show if it’s actually producing better-quality students, she said.

“Classes fluctuate,” said Ms. Chinnery, who hasn’t used laptops in her classes at all this year. “It’s been a short-term experiment. Not enough study has been done to show [a laptop program] is the be-all and end-all.”

Ms. Acosta-Sing, the principal, says there are other educational benefits to laptops, such as helping students improve their organizational and presentation skills.

She also emphasizes the value of giving students access to computers at home. Almost all of the students at Mott Hall are poor and born of immigrant families who have moved from Spanish-speaking countries, mostly the Dominican Republic.

Many of the students wouldn’t have been able to afford a computer if it weren’t for the district’s lease-to-buy arrangement, Ms. Acosta-Sing said.

“These are minority students—we’re pushing them hard to go to the university,” Ms. Acosta-Sing said. “If these kids are going to have a future, they need to have technology skills.”

Students interviewed for this story said they have used the computers a lot outside of class for educational purposes.

“It’s improved my education altogether,” said 14-year-old Natalia Alzate. “I was interested in economics and finance, but I didn’t know what it meant. I started looking up information—such as what an M.B.A. was.” She’s slated to attend a high school for economics and finance next fall.

With the laptops, “sometimes it’s even fun to do homework,” added 14-year-old Rocio De La Rosa.

For most of the students, the laptop is the first computer the family has ever owned.

That was the case with Jessica Alcantara, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who work as a babysitter and as a city convention center custodian.

The 13-year-old girl was accepted by Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., one of the nation’s most competitive preparatory schools. She expects to attend with the help of a scholarship.

Jessica said the laptop, which she’s had since the 5th grade, has improved the quality of her middle school education. “You basically get better grades,” she said. “It helps you better organize your work. It’s so much more efficient.”

All students should be that fortunate, Ms. Acosta-Sing said.

“I do believe in it—as a principal, I didn’t have to get into this,” she said. “This puts a lot of stress on my life. I had to sweat a lot with this program. But I do know it represents the future of these children.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2000 edition of Education Week as Laptops for All Doesn’t Mean They’re Always Used


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