Classroom Technology Commentary

The Emperor’s New Laptop

By Daniel J. Rocha — September 27, 2000 10 min read
Even though computers have now become commonplace in schools, we continue to struggle with technology in learning.

Since the day in 1982 when I returned from spring break to find an Apple II personal computer in my 5th grade classroom, I’ve championed the development of educational technology—first as a classroom teacher, then as a curriculum coordinator, and finally as an administrator. But even though computers have now become commonplace in schools, the promise of technology remains largely unfulfilled. We continue to struggle with the appropriate role of technology in learning.

Hope quickened for a breakthrough on this front when laptop computers began finding their way into more and more schools. Putting these portable computers in the hands of every student, every day would seem the ideal way to harness the power of technology as a tool for increased learning. Spurred by hardware and software manufacturers eager to place their products in a largely untapped market, many schools have been lured by this promise of “anytime, anywhere” learning.

I, too, saw the promise. Reports of laptops’ being able to spur increased technology use, blur the lines between schoolwork and homework, and change fundamentally the relationship between teacher and student appeared in journal after journal. And I saw this development also as a way to break the hardware-replacement cycle that takes up so much of a school’s technology budget. If the school could maintain the network and provide support, the parents could be responsible for ensuring that appropriate hardware was in each child’s hands.

Three years ago, members of the technology department of the independent school where I worked until last summer, the Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, N.J., joined with a team of 6th grade teachers to begin an investigation into the use of laptops in middle schools. We visited places where laptops had become mandatory for all students. And the praise we heard was nearly universal: This was a great idea.

Then we began to look closer. At one of the laptop-project meetings, someone asked a question that had the same effect as the one asked by the boy in the famous tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” What this person said, in essence, was this: “Yes, all of this is really cool and the kids like it a lot and many of the teachers seem to like it, but are they learning more?

To answer that question, we enlisted the aid of a researcher from Boston University’s school of education, Mary Shann, who helped us design a study. In a preliminary search of the literature, Ms. Shann found 68 studies that concentrated on laptop computers in precollegiate education; 18 of those were focused on middle schools. Yet, not one had focused on learning outcomes. In other words, after we waded through hundreds of pages of hype, we were left with the distinct possibility that the laptop emperor had no clothes.

In designing our study of learning outcomes for children who use laptop computers, writing seemed to us to be a natural place to start. Word processing is, after all, one of the most frequently used computer applications. It stood to reason, we decided, that students who had prolonged exposure to a laptop would tend to write more and edit more, and, thus, that their writing would improve more than that of their classmates who did not have access to a laptop computer. The Montclair Kimberley Academy already had a well-developed writing-skills assessment. We decided to use it to look at the improvement in writing in a group of students who had laptop access for the first semester of their 6th grade year, vs. students who did not have laptop access during that time.

In the spring of 1999, the writing assessment was administered to all of the students in our 5th grade. From a pool of students who volunteered for the study, 16 were chosen through a random drawing to receive Macintosh Powerbook G3 laptop computers. Those 16 students were placed in the same 6th grade English class. The other 64 students were not provided with laptops. Their English classes would be taught in a more traditional manner, using the computer lab when appropriate, as well as computers available to them at home. The 16 students in the pilot group carried their laptops to every class, using them as organizational tools and as aids, where appropriate, in other disciplines.

Despite the accolades of an adoring public, the laptop emperor is wearing no clothes.

There were problems. Some were what one would expect from 6th graders: milk in the keyboard, a dropped computer resulting in a broken screen, misplaced accessories such as power cords and battery packs. Computers were not always charged for class, and the relatively short battery life made this problematic. Technical problems like freezing and crashing kept our three- member technology team so busy that, by my calculation, expansion of the project to include more students would have required the addition of an extra technician.

Beyond those problems were health concerns. Like their peers in other independent schools, our students tend to carry their lives in their backpacks, which can mean cargo far in excess of the 10 percent of body weight experts recommend. The laptops alone, at 8 pounds each, were more than 10 percent of many of the children’s weight. Adding this to an already heavy load was a cause for great concern. We had our school doctor screen the laptop class for back problems, as well as for the wrist problems associated with keyboard use that are becoming all too common among young people. Luckily, our short-term study revealed no worrisome physical strains. The long-term effects, of course, remain unknown.

The school had been willing, however, to address these and other concerns, if we could demonstrate that the students learned more as a result of using their laptops. Unfortunately, we could not. In January, when we administered the writing assessment again in our five 6th grade English classes, there was no discernable difference in writing between the students in the laptop class and their peers who had approached writing in a more traditional way. Our conclusion was that the data do not support any real improvement in writing as a result of using the laptops. And since student writing was the area we saw as providing the most easily measurable learning outcome, we felt it was simply not possible to ask parents to incur the significant added expense beyond tuition of buying a laptop computer for their child.

In other words, having completed the only study we could find in the educational literature that measured student learning outcomes as a result of laptop use, the inescapable conclusion we drew was that, despite the accolades of an adoring public, the laptop emperor is wearing no clothes. This was not what we expected to find.

We certainly do not suggest that we have completed the definitive study of laptops in middle schools. But the work we did over three years in preparation for and execution of this study should at least sound a note of caution for schools considering a move toward mandatory laptops. The Montclair Kimberley Academy is a technology-rich environment. For the nearly 400 students enrolled in the middle school, there are two dedicated computer labs, and each classroom has a Macintosh computer of recent vintage, a TV, and a VCR. All of the computers are hooked up to the internal school network and offer access to the Internet. The library is fully automated. Nearly all of the students have access to a computer at home.

It is possible, of course, that the reason there was no difference in achievement between the laptop class and their peers in other classes is that, at this particular school, the laptop did not significantly increase students’ access to technology. The study may, in other words, be valid for environments like ours, but would produce different results with students for whom access to laptops represents their only significant exposure to technology. Unfortunately, many of the schools rushing to embrace laptops for all students are in environments similar to the one at Montclair Kimberley Academy. Our experience suggests that this could well be an expensive mistake. Some of the supposed benefits touted by laptop supporters may, in fact, turn out to be problems. Consider, for example, the following:

  • Fundamental change in the relationship between teacher and student is not necessarily desirable. Many parents seek out schools like ours because of the strong relationships teachers build with their students. While we need to be cognizant of the appropriate uses of technology for children, and prepare them to use technology as a tool for increased productivity, our real obligation is to teach them to read great books, think great thoughts, and express those thoughts in writing. We need to teach them to understand mathematical concepts and think like scientists. A great computer can get students excited about a given lesson on a given day, but only a great teacher can inspire them to pursue a lifetime love of learning.
  • Increased time using a computer may not be a great benefit. Many of the students in schools like ours have computers at home. Because we are not a neighborhood school, many of our students go home and “hang out” online. This is not always a safe place to be. And increased time on computers means decreased time pursuing other activities, such as getting exercise or reading books. We have an obligation to help children learn the value of lives that are well-rounded. How much more time in front of a computer screen should be encouraged?
  • Universal, mandatory laptop use assumes that all students would benefit in the same way from the use of the computer. This is unlikely. Not all children learn the same way. And they have different comfort levels with technology. One child’s great new organizational tool is another child’s electronic headache. Nor is every child able to cope with technical problems that could result in lost work, or with the responsibility for carrying around a delicate piece of expensive electronic equipment.
  • The cost of such a program is extremely difficult to determine. From an administrative standpoint, potential cost savings are one of the most attractive features of a school laptop program: The school would supply software and maintain a network; the parents would pick up hardware-replacement costs. But the cost of technology in a school extends far beyond hardware and software. There would be increased costs, for example, if the network needed to be expanded to handle, say, 300 simultaneous users. There also would be increased personnel costs. The lone individual most schools place in charge of technology could not possibly handle all of the hardware and software problems inherent in a project of any size.

Significant training costs would also be a given. At our school, for example, it took a group of highly experienced, highly motivated 6th grade teachers months of work to produce units of study in each discipline to take advantage of the laptop’s capabilities. How much more time would have been needed to create a school year’s worth of work? Would faculty members be expected to rewrite entire curricula for no compensation? I hope not.

The ability to write lessons that make use of the laptop’s capabilities assumes a depth of knowledge that some teachers simply may not have.

The ability to write lessons that make use of the laptop’s capabilities, moreover, assumes a depth of knowledge about technology that some teachers in a school simply may not have. It is unlikely that a whole teaching staff would achieve that level of sophistication without extensive (and expensive) training. Yet, without such training—and a lot of planning—the laptops are unlikely to be anything beyond glorified notebooks.

Increased use of such personalized technological tools as laptops in schools is on the way, of course. At the Montclair Kimberley Academy, a policy has been adopted making the use of laptops for organizational purposes or to aid productivity a choice open to students and their parents. And a few of the students there carry laptops to school each day. I suspect that their number will grow in the future, as technology continues to improve. But mandatory use for all students? I think we should wait until somebody can demonstrate clearly that this emperor is finally wearing clothes.

Daniel J. Rocha is the headmaster at York Country Day School in York, Pa. He was the middle school head of campus at Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, N.J., during the study discussed in this essay.

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