Laptops, Education and Common Sense- Really?

This article on laptops from ArsTechnica came to me last night via my dad. It amuses me how hard people are still making certain aspects of computers and education.

I’ll start with the K12 focus-

The 1:1 laptop programs do seem to help with the students’ ability to use the technology they’re exposed to, and a variety of studies show what might be an unexpected benefit: improved writing skills. Apparently, the ease of using a word processor, along with the ability to go back and modify things that would otherwise have been committed to paper, helps students learn how to write more coherent and persuasive text.

So, even with horrific and near sighted implementation plans students are still getting some benefit from laptops? That doesn’t entirely surprise me but it does point towards the resiliency of students and their ability to learn in spite of structures seemingly designed to impede them.

Outside of these areas, however, the benefits of 1:1 laptop availability are mixed. Different studies have found changes in math and science test performance that were inconsistent. In general, the authors argue, the benefits of laptops come in cases where the larger educational program has been redesigned to incorporate their unique capabilities, and the teachers have been trained in order to better integrate laptop use into the wider educational experience. Both of these processes are resource-intensive, and the degree of their success may vary from classroom to classroom even in a single school, which is likely to explain the wide variability in the results.

-emphasis mine

This seems so fundamentally obvious and goes so very well with one of the good (although horribly unattractive) slides from Tim Magner’s ISTE webinar1


So, slapping technology on top of your old concepts and practices doesn’t magically make them better?. It takes a lot of time and effort to get people thinking differently and even more effort/time/energy to get these thoughts to be applied well.

The last sentence makes me laugh- because the author seems almost surprised by the idea that even with all this effort and expense it still, at the end of the day, is up to the individual teacher. This seems to throw a horseshoe in the laptops = or ? learning equation. This was always a stupid conversation based on a really bad logic and driven by the media. The question should always have centered around the idea of good teachers and that good teachers ought to be taking advantage of all available resources to make their teaching better. Now how can we make better teachers or how can we change the structure so that students don’t end up so tied to the fickle fate of being in a certain class2 is a much better use of our time.

And now on to Kindergarten – oh, no- i guess that’s higher ed. I had to include this quote because I had to read it twice to really believe it said what it says.

Outright bans are unlikely to be a long-term solution as students’ reliance on digital technology is only likely to increase. One alternative—wandering the classroom to monitor what students are doing (used both at the University of Colorado-Boulder and West Point)—isn’t going to work in all contexts.

Wow. Banning laptops or having roving monitors to keep you on task. I’m not sure I can muster enough contempt for this kind of stupidity. It is sad to see the infantilization of students now extending into college.

Wandering monitors don’t work in any context. It’s dead simple to hide/show windows and I’d make it my mission to go off task with that sort of insulting nonsense going on.

I just don’t understand why this is so hard.

1 Apparently he’s the former director for the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education. I had no idea we even had one of those.

2 I don’t think I’ve ever seen this talked about. I’ve seen lots of stats showing that the teacher is the most important aspect of the classroom but I’ve never seen the inherent unfairness and unfortunate aspect of this addressed. Would student centered learning change this? I’m not sure.

Comments on this post

  1. Tom said on March 29, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Damn it.

    In my defense I was in an airport and had to post before the flight which allowed me to sit on the tarmac for two hours.

    I’ll promise to do better.

  2. Patrick Malley said on March 30, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Great post, Tom. Highlighted exactly the points that I needed to read. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to poke an open wound!

  3. Tom said on March 30, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    And you shouldn’t! Poke away.

    At least I know someone’s reading and calling me out when I do something stupid. That’s a very good thing.

    I appreciate it despite my eternal embarrassment and shame.

  4. Simon Oldaker said on April 6, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I work at a fairly new school that has had a 1:1 laptop ratio since we began. The students are very favorable, but this seems to be because laptops provide them with an alternative to school, without having to leave the classroom.

    You’re right, of course, that it comes down to teaching. Unfortunately, 1:1 laptop ratio puts the individual teacher right in the path of the conflict between the school ethos and modern entertainment culture. I’m not sure the individual teacher should have to have that responsibility. Not as an individual, anyway. For some reason, there seems to be an unwillingness to talk about this side of technology in the classroom.

    • Tom said on April 6, 2009 at 9:43 am


      You bring up some interesting questions. I think a lot about how much competition education now has for student attention. The 1:1 environment is tricky. On one hand, laptops enable you to engage students with a huge variety of multimedia, real-time news, varied applications and different levels of interaction. On the other hand, if you aren’t doing that (and even if you are) the laptop is a gateway to lots of things that are interesting but totally off topic. I don’t think we prepare teachers very well for this.

      I would disagree and say that the individual teacher has to be the person responsible for blending our current culture and education. If the teacher is not doing that then it seems to me he/she is ignoring a lot of the context for students and missing a lot of ways to motivate and engage them. I’m not saying you have to make your lessons a Twitter-FaceBook-YouTube extravaganza but you ought to be cognizant of what’s going on in the world, what kind of media interests your students and how those things (and many more) can be blended with your content. Then you have to do it.

      With today’s phones, the 1:1 is becoming less of a factor anyway. The distractions are here to stay and will only get worse. I think the questions you bring up need to be addressed but in a broader context. The world is now available, how do we deal with it? How do we capture student attention and make things interesting?

  5. Simon Oldaker said on April 23, 2009 at 3:55 am

    I never thanked you for your reply – you are so prolific that this post is ancient history already, I know. I’m back here because this topic has exploded lately in Norway. A small, rich country, Norway has suddenly gone towards 1:1 in a huge way (without necessarily any massive paradigm shift to go with it). Now a student blogger has started to point out that the digital emperor may not be so well dressed after all. All of a sudden, Norway has become something of a giant 1:1 experiment/ debate zone.

  6. Tom said on April 23, 2009 at 7:09 am


    No need for thanks. It was interesting to see your perspective. I’d love to know more about the situation in Norway. Google Translate is helping me get a rough idea of the CingT situation. It’s interesting stuff. Too bad I can’t swing by Norway to see what’s going on.

  7. Simon Oldaker said on April 24, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Google Translate? You’re a madman. Things have taken off here to the point where I can’t really refer to everything, but I’ll try and sum up a bit on my blog.

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