Back to the Future
AP U.S. History was my first class of the day, and I was late as usual that spring morning—getting a driver’s license and escaping the bus had allowed me to indulge my tendency to procrastinate. As I ran up the steps to the second floor of my Virginia high school, the rarely used black bag I’d lugged in from the student parking lot slid off my shoulder, catching on my elbow. Making it to the classroom, I saw the note on the door: FIRST PERIOD MEETING DOWNSTAIRS. So I trudged back the way I came, repositioning the bag on my shoulder as I walked down the hall.
In a windowless classroom not far from the gym, a camera crew was setting up its gear as my classmates set up theirs. Opening carrying cases identical to mine as I scurried inside, they pulled out small, snow-white laptops, which they placed on their desks and opened in preparation for the lesson.
School-issued laptops are now common in many places. Along with scores of individual districts, the state of Maine started providing its 37,000 middle school students laptops in 2002, and earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s governor announced plans to begin doing the same in that state’s high schools. But this wasn’t the case in 1985, when I was a high school junior who took part in an experiment that sounds awfully familiar today.
In the mid-1980s, computers were generally garrisoned in labs, unconnected to each other or the outside world. The Internet, while more than a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, was still firmly the domain of higher-level academe. And laptops were an utter novelty. So, as Ms. Johnson, my first-period teacher, began the morning’s lecture, the camera crew wandered the aisles, videotaping us as we tapped away, using the diminutive machines to take notes. The idea, we’d been told, was to demonstrate that if students were assigned portable computers as notetaking tools and left to find other uses for them, technology could help move learning into a 21st century mindset that was still 15 years away.
Only it didn’t quite work that way. The day of the district-sponsored video shoot was the first time anyone had brought his or her laptop to school in months. After a brief period of experimentation in the fall, mine had sat behind my bedroom door, zipped up in its case, since well before Christmas. We’d been reminded for days, even cajoled with the promise of extra credit, to bring the computers in for the taping. But for all their promise, my classmates and I just didn’t find them useful, much less transforming.
Of course, two decades later, laptops and other technological tools have established substantial footholds inside classrooms, winning over many skeptics in the process. But my early-adopter experience is worth revisiting for two reasons. First, in education and in technology, virtually every idea billed as new or paradigm-shifting has undoubtedly percolated to the surface before. More important, however, it shows that technology—even the best that money can buy—has to fit a need, and not the other way around.
Back in 1985, there was probably no high school student more eager to jump into such an experiment than me. Let’s not mince words: I wasn’t just an early adopter—I was a dork. I already had a computer at home, an Atari 800 with an external drive that sounded uncannily like a rock tumbler as it chewed on its dessert-plate-sized floppy disks. (And yes, the fact that I was familiar with the sound of a rock tumbler only underscores my less-than-cool status.) I’d taught myself several programming languages, written research papers on a primitive word processor, and used my molasses-slow 300-baud modem to access bulletin-board systems—the clunky, homegrown precursors to the inanity the Internet provides today. So you’d figure this would have been right up my alley.
The same could be said for the Fairfax County, Virginia, district. One of the nation’s most affluent school systems, it had long been ahead of the curve technologically. The first time I’d seen a computer was in a middle school classroom there, where we spent several days learning to work with a few simple programs—pretty basic stuff, but a big deal in 1981. Just four years later, district officials decided to issue every AP History student at our school—W.T. Woodson—a then-cutting-edge notebook computer as part of a largely informal test of their usefulness in the classroom.
In retrospect, it makes sense that AP History was singled out as the prototype. Like all Advanced Placement classes, it was intended to provide an early glimpse of the college experience, so we were given more than our fair share of notebook-filling lectures. The only surprise was that of all the teachers they could have roped into serving as a high-tech guinea pig, district officials managed to talk Billie Johnson into the experiment. To say she wasn’t the kind of teacher who suffered fools gladly—or at all—would be an understatement. She played the professorial AP role to the hilt, dismissing unprepared questions and sarcastic comments with a withering stare. She commanded immediate respect, but the only windows we were ever afforded into her personal life involved brief accounts of trips to help develop and grade AP exams. At one such confab, her grasp of the subject matter apparently proved so inspiring she was presented with a spontaneous offer of marriage. “I’m not the marrying type,” she later told her students of the experience, smiling faintly and shaking her head before returning to an analysis of Reconstruction-era politics.
What made the laptop experiment intriguing was its unstructured nature. Beyond notetaking, we weren’t told how, or even if, we should use the machines. So, when the computers finally arrived midway through the first grading period, we couldn’t help but be excited—and amazed. Consider what cell phones looked like in the early 1980s—unwieldy, clublike handsets wired to briefcase-sized transmitters—and you’d expect a laptop from that era to look like something out of an East German rummage sale.
But the Epson PX-8 was similar in size and heft to today’s laptops. The main differences were its tiny, flip-up LCD screen—only eight lines of black-and-white text would fit at a time—and the tiny microcassette tapes used to (slowly) save work. It came with a portable thermal printer that used the same flimsy paper found in fax machines, an innovation I wouldn’t experience firsthand for another six years. All in all, the laptop was uncannily similar to one of those computerized typewriters that enjoyed a brief window of popularity in the late ’80s before being relegated to the scrapheap of obsolescence.
The Internet being what it is, it recently took me about 30 seconds of Googling to find several Web sites devoted to the PX-8. “Why are CP/M machines just so cool?” begins one discussion of the machine’s technical specs in a language vaguely resembling English. (I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, so let’s just move on.) The PX-8 cost around $1,000 when it was introduced in 1984. I recently saw one for sale on eBay for $20, plus shipping. So technology goes.
For the first few weeks, just about everyone made an effort to use the laptops in class, duly tapping away as Ms. Johnson or her team teacher, Ms. Spencer, lectured. I’d even bring mine to other classes to take notes or write crude programs in BASIC whenever I’d tire of the discussion. At first, I worried that wandering the halls with a computer was the high-tech equivalent of wearing a KICK ME sign, but the only person who showed any interest was a chemistry teacher who—how can I put this politely?—also probably knew exactly what a rock tumbler sounded like. Otherwise, the computers drew little attention, which was just the way I liked it.
Still, my classmates and I began using the laptops less and less. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I’d stopped bringing mine to school. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I just didn’t find it particularly useful. I’d developed the habit of scrawling notes into the margins of my history textbook, a pedagogical tic that would stay with me through college. So lugging the textbook-sized laptop and a meaty, college-level tome around all day seemed a bit cumbersome—particularly since the weight-training unit in PE wasn’t until spring semester.
A few other details came into play. Even though this was well before the days of schools selecting 27 co-valedictorians, Woodson was a competitive place—more than 83 percent of my graduating class went on to higher ed. This particular class took that atmosphere to a hypercompetitive extreme, particularly since, as juniors, everyone was focused with laserlike intensity on college. After a classmate scored a 1580 on the SATs later in the year, he half-jokingly claimed to remember precisely which question he got wrong. When you have a roomful of students monitoring their GPAs to the hundredth decimal place, it’s safe to say no one’s going to devote a lot of time to a new gadget if it doesn’t offer some immediate benefit. Also, Woodson pulled from some tony neighborhoods, even by the county’s affluent standards, so many kids already had access to computers at home. In 1985, the digital divide wasn’t much of an issue.
Just as important, to my thinking, was the machine’s inability to tap into any kind of shared knowledge. Today, school laptops are coupled with wireless Internet access, which teachers and students use to gather information during class and conduct research. Our laptops did have modems, and in hopes of sparking some sort of information exchange, we actually took a field trip to visit the district’s bulletin-board system—a largely empty room housing a couple of computers—which was about as exciting as it sounds. But the BBS was as heavily trafficked as, say, a Walter Mondale fan club in 1985, so when it was time to do our research papers, we all trudged down to the library, our decidedly analog 3x5 cards in hand. It would take another decade for online reference material to begin gaining critical mass.
Which is why, as the school year drew to a close, the springtime video shoot had a decidedly Potemkinesque feel to it. We were moved to the windowless classroom downstairs so direct sunlight wouldn’t interfere with the camera crew, but that was pretty much the only concession my teachers made. And once the class was over, we took the computers home, where they stayed until we had to return them in June.
A month or two later, I was flipping randomly around cable TV late one evening and, as I passed the county schools’ public-access channel, caught a fleeting glimpse of the back of my head, hunched over the laptop. I wasn’t even 18 yet, and my 15 minutes of fame had already come and gone. I’d later get another shot at show-biz immortality, this time doing open-mic stand-up at a comedy club. Fortunately for everyone involved, the laptops had a better go of things the second time around than I did.
Vol. 17, Issue 06, Pages 30, 32Published in Print: May 1, 2006, as Back to the Future