Special Report
Classroom Technology

Learning Benefits Seen in Laptop Initiative

By Katie Ash — March 16, 2010 6 min read
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After a decade of running a 1-to-1 laptop program at Sarah Banks Middle School, it’s safe to say the educators there have learned many lessons about what makes such an initiative work.

Much has changed since the program was first launched in 1999 at the Detroit-area school, says Mark Hess, now the principal of the school but a teacher there when the program began.

Back then, teachers and students mostly used Microsoft Office software programs, since the students’ laptops did not have Internet capabilities. The computers’ battery packs weren’t nearly as strong or sophisticated as they are now, and keeping the laptops charged was a major challenge, Hess remembers.

“The challenges [then] were really physical,” compared to the challenges faced today, he says.

Now, each classroom at the 900-student school in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District has a smartboard, and teachers have access to a myriad of technologies such as small videocameras called FlipCams, microphones, document cameras, and data projectors. About a third of the students take part in the school’s 1-to-1 laptop program, while the rest make use of carts of laptops in the school.

Students use the technologies to create podcasts, craft digital photo stories, publish their work online to share with peers and parents, put together PowerPoint presentations with voiceover narration, and countless other activities, says Hess.

The school has also put in place a wireless network, which has been upgraded three times since its original installation in 2004.

Although the school district emphasizes the importance of technology and several middle schools in it also have 1-to-1 laptop programs, each school runs its own initiative separately.

“Integrating technology into the classroom in the year 2010 is no longer an option, it’s part of classroom life,” Hess says. “It’s now fully integrated in everything we do.”

Parents Buy Laptops

One unusual and potentially controversial aspect of the laptop program at Sarah Banks is that if students opt in, their parents are responsible for providing the laptop.

“We really stress that it’s a family decision,” says Hess, much like buying a musical instrument. The curriculum for students is the same whether or not families opt into the laptop program, he points out.

The decision to defray the cost of the technology by pushing it out to parents was one that raised questions about equity when the program first began, the principal says, but because of the technology-rich environment for all students as well as the laptop carts available for students who are not in the laptop program, those concerns have eased, he says.

“Any time you start something new, it’s going to be met with some opposition,” he says. “We could certainly never afford to purchase laptops for everybody.”

About one-fourth of the school enrollment qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches.

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Wireless Issues

Parents can buy a laptop through a Hewlett-Packard dealer that the school works with and receive a three-year warranty, or they can purchase their own, as long as it meets certain requirements set by the school. For example, students this year needed computers with at least a 160 gigabyte hard drive, a 1.6 gigahertz processor, wireless capabilities, and the Microsoft Office suite, among other requirements

Leslie A. Wilson, the president of the Lansing, Mich.-based One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates 1-to-1 laptop learning environments, cites the decision to use parent-purchased laptops as a contributing factor in the program’s success.

Since its inception, the program has been a community-driven initiative with widespread support from parents, she says, which made it a good candidate for that purchase model. And taking advantage of the technology that students already have is a concept that is gaining more traction across the country, especially with the rising use of mobile technologies among students of all ages.

“Instead of making the child power down with his or her own technology at the door, we want to support that,” Wilson says. “We want to say, ‘Yes, bring your personal portable technology to use.’ “

Gaining Support

Another reason behind the 1-to-1 program’s longevity is “a shared district vision about the meaningful importance of educational technology,” says Wilson. “That vision is embraced and shared and communicated by the principal ... so that everybody’s on the same page about why they’re doing this.”

Teacher Jennifer LaCross, center, works with 6th graders Julia Majewski, left, and Khannique Alonzo at Sarah Banks Middle School.

The longevity of the program, as well as the support it receives from district- and school-level administrators, teachers, and the community may explain the initiative’s continued existence despite widespread school budget cuts in Michigan, Wilson says.

Providing proper support to teachers is also essential, says Jennifer LaCross, a 6th grade math and science teacher at Sarah Banks whose daughter is participating in the laptop program.

“The most important thing is to start with good leadership and good teacher training so that teachers have all the skills they need,” she says.

In addition to formal professional development, which always includes technology training, says Principal Hess, the school emphasizes in its professional-learning communities that teachers should help one another.

“The best professional development is when teachers train other teachers,” he says. “The equipment is no good if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable with it or have the skills to integrate it.”

Just buying technology and putting it into a school isn’t going to be effective, adds Andrew Zucker, a senior researcher and evaluator for the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research-and-development organization based in Concord, Mass., that also develops computer-based curricula.

“Change is a process, not a purchase,” he says. “Teachers have to change the way that they conduct instruction and their expectations of the way students will learn.”

LaCross, the 6th grade teacher at Sarah Banks, underscores that point. When each student has a laptop, she says, the classroom environment becomes much more student-centered than teacher-centered.

“It’s very rare that I would walk through the school and see a teacher standing up and lecturing for the whole hour,” she says.

Achievement Question

Kevin Joseph, left, uses an interactive whiteboard to teach a math lesson with Max Klos, 12, and the rest of a 7th grade class at Sarah Banks Middle School in Walled Lake, Mich. The school, which puts a heavy emphasis on the use of technology for learning, has had a 1-to-1 computing program in place for a decade. Now, students use laptops for learning in school and at home as part of the program.

Mark Lada, a 6th grade science teacher at Sarah Banks who was one of the first laptop-computer teachers when the program began, says that by using laptops, as well as the other technologies available, lessons become more interactive, and students are more engaged.

Kevin Joseph, a 7th grade math and social studies teacher at the school, has taught both laptop and nonlaptop classes.

“The main difference that I see is that I have to be a little more flexible on due dates [for the students without laptops],” he says, pointing out that some students do not have Internet access at home, and that should be taken into consideration.

The laptops can also provide opportunities for students to share their knowledge with other students, as well as teachers, says Joseph.

“You are going to have kids in your classroom that are going to know much more than you do [about the technology], and you have to be OK with that,” he says. “Some kids have so much more information about how to use certain programs. They can share their wealth of knowledge.”

But the question remains: Have the laptops helped improve student achievement?

It’s impossible to draw a direct connection between the two, says Hess, the principal, but he’s quick to note that the school’s test scores have increased steadily over the past decade.

“It’s part of the whole puzzle,” he says, which also includes a strong parent community and good teachers and support-staff members.

And although he makes clear that the 1-to-1 program is no all-purpose fix for academic problems, “the technology piece is a big part of that puzzle.”

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