Laptop Computers in the K-12 Classroom. ERIC Digest.
by Belanger, Yvonne
Over the past decade, many schools have investigated the educational
possibilities of mobile computing. More recently, an increasing number
of K-12 schools are implementing the use of laptop computers. Improvements
in portable computing technology and examples of successful pilot programs
using laptops and other portables have inspired many K-12 schools to consider
laptops for their students.
EMERGENCE OF LAPTOPS IN SCHOOLS
Organized laptop programs in higher education date as far back as 1988
when Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, began providing notebook computers
(paid for from tuition) to all incoming freshman. Now more than 50 postsecondary
institutions worldwide require at least some of their students to use laptops
(Brown, 1999). Throughout the 1990s, a number of private schools in the
United States and abroad began requiring ownership of laptops. In 1996,
inspired by the successful use of laptops in Australian schools, the Microsoft
Corporation and Toshiba began one of the most high-profile programs now
underway, currently known as Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL)
Program (Healey, 1999). Technology corporations, such as NetSchools (http://www.studypro.com/),
NoteSys Inc. (http://www.notesys.com/), Apple (http://www.apple.com/education/),
and others are promoting the use of laptops in K-12 education, providing
hardware packages for schools, and in some cases, software and technical
support as well.
TRANSITIONS TO LAPTOPS
How are schools integrating laptops into their technology infrastructure?
Microsoft commissioned an ongoing study of Anytime Anywhere Learning, published
as the Rockman Report. In their study, Rockman (1998) identified five models
of laptop use currently in place at the K-12 level:
* Concentrated-each student has his or her own laptop for use at home
or in school
* Class set-a school-purchased classroom set is shared among teachers
* Dispersed-in any given classroom, there are students with and without
* Desktop-each classroom is permanently assigned a few laptops for students
* Mixed-some combination of the above models.
Each model has potential advantages, either in terms of instructional
benefits, ease of implementation, or savings. In the concentrated model,
teachers are free to integrate technology fully into instruction as well
as assignments, since all students have access to a computer for homework,
study, and projects. In the class set and dispersed models, teachers are
free to integrate laptops during the school day; however, there may still
be students within the same class who lack access to a computer in the
home, so integration options are more limited. In the desktop model, although
the computers are owned and maintained by the school, a student working
on a computer-based project during the school day might be allowed to take
the laptop home to complete their work. Also, teachers are better able
to reconfigure their classroom setup to suit their technology integration
needs. Laptops can also take the place of desktops in a traditional lab
setting. For example, the Cuba-Rushford School District in Allegheny County,
New York, created a 70-computer laptop lab. These computers are available
for checkout to their middle and high school students. For many schools,
the primary advantage of laptops over desktops is in creating opportunities
for all students to have access to a computer both during and outside of
the school day.
Traditional laptops are not the only portable computers appearing in
elementary and secondary institutions. Some schools uncomfortable with
the high cost of laptops have explored the advantages of lower-priced portables
designed for K-12 students. The AlphaSmart and DreamWriter, for example,
make it possible to provide each student with a rechargeable portable that
can be used for word processing or keyboarding instruction at a fraction
of the cost of a traditional laptop. Some mini-portables do more than word
processing. Casio's Cassiopeia Computer Extender, for example, includes
the graphing program Maple as well as Geometer's Sketchpad, a dynamic geometry
program. This mini-portable can therefore be used in math and science instruction
at the high school level. In addition to scaled-down portables, manufacturers
are also designing full-scale laptops with younger students in mind. The
StudyPro, for example, is a durable infrared wireless laptop with few moving
parts marketed specifically for K-12 use. Also, Apple's AirPort wireless
network hub is another wireless technology designed to meet the needs of
laptop schools. With wireless networks, schools can allow multiple users
to share a single network connection, as well as avoid some of the hassle
and expense of physical cabling.
Educators who work with laptops have begun to explore their unique advantages.
The 1999 Laptop Learning Challenge sponsored by Toshiba and the National
Science Teacher's Association (http://www.nsta.org/programs/laptop/index.htm)
recently recognized innovative uses of laptops in K-12 mathematics and
science education. Some award-winning ideas showed students using laptops
to facilitate group work, to analyze data immediately during a lab exercise,
or to conduct scientific investigations in the field rather than in the
classroom. Evaluators of the Copernicus Project, a multi-district laptop
pilot program in Seattle, Washington, found laptops to be especially suited
for writing activities, student projects, and presentations (Fouts &
Stuen, 1997). Other uses for laptops include creating spreadsheets to solve
math homework problems; creating book reports that inspire student creativity
with presentation software such as PowerPoint or HyperStudio; or having
students routinely hand in assignments via floppy disk or connect to the
school network and save their work to a central file server for the teacher
to review, add comments, and leave for the student to retrieve.
DOES RESEARCH SUPPORT THE USE OF LAPTOPS?
Several studies suggest educational benefits related to laptop use.
Specific benefits noted include increased student motivation (Gardner 1994,
Rockman, 1998), a shift toward more student-centered classroom environments
(Stevenson, 1998; Rockman, 1998), and better school attendance than students
not using laptops (Stevenson, 1998). In his study of a laptop pilot program
in Beaufort, South Carolina, Stevenson (1998) also reported that students
with laptops demonstrated a "sustained level of academic achievement" during
their middle school years, as opposed to students not using laptops who
tended to decline during this same period. He also noted that these academic
benefits were most significant in at-risk student populations.
In their study of laptop use in middle school science classrooms, Fisher
and Stolarchuk (1998) found that those laptop classrooms in which skills
and the process of inquiry were emphasized had the most positive impact
on student learning and attitudes. According to Rockman, a majority of
teachers in laptop schools reported an increase in both cooperative learning
and project-based instruction. Other research has not supported the educational
benefits of laptop use.
Gardner (1993) found that the impact of laptops after one year was "at
best marginal" on achievement in mathematics, science, and writing. Also,
Fisher and Stolarchuk reported a more positive relationship between laptops
and student attitudes than between laptops and academic achievement. Research
into the educational use of laptops has only begun; relatively few K-12
schools have had laptops in place long enough to generate longitudinal
studies of their impact on student achievement. It remains to be seen what
additional research will reveal about the long-term impact of laptops on
student achievement and outcomes.
With growing concern over equity in access to technology, laptop programs
have become increasingly attractive. Whether through leasing programs,
purchasing refurbished hardware, or obtaining technology grants, many schools
hope to reduce their student-to-computer ratio by considering some form
of laptop program. Critics point out the possibilities of theft, vandalism,
and accidental damage. Newer "student-friendly" laptop models address some
of these issues; not only are they more durable, but some have included
theft-deterrent technology as well.
However, despite the creative educational possibilities of laptops and
promise of equitable access for all students, added costs in the form of
hardware, network costs, technical support considerations, and faculty
training remain the greatest obstacles. The presence of laptops in a school
does not necessarily imply student ownership; however, some schools are
advocating or requiring student purchase or rental. Partnerships between
schools, nonprofit organizations, and corporations can defray costs, but
ultimately parents share the expense with schools that hope to put a laptop
in the hands of every child (Wishengrad, 1999). For this reason, there
is concern among some that laptop programs may worsen technology inequities
among students for families who are unable to assume these costs (Jameson,
1999). The controversy over laptops is not limited to issues of equity
and cost, however; the Texas Board of Education recently made headlines
by suggesting the state replace all textbooks with CD-ROMS and fund a laptop
leasing program for all 3.9 million students with the estimated $1.8 billion
in savings over six years (Mendels, 1998). Despite these issues, many educators
hoping to bring the benefits of educational technology to more students
continue to look for creative ways to overcome these obstacles.
The future of mobile computing in K-12 education is still uncertain.
Laptops may never become as common in classrooms as hand-held calculators.
Solutions for issues of cost, technical support needs, security, and equitable
access are challenging for many schools. Many schools with laptops, however,
remain positive and enthusiastic about the changes observed and benefits
their students derive from access to portable computers. Although many
laptop programs are young and studies are still in progress, research has
shown educational benefits from the use of laptops, particularly with respect
to increasing student motivation and creating more student-centered classrooms.
Continuing improvements in student portable computing technology as well
as models of successful programs may make laptops an increasingly attractive
option for K-12 educators and technology planners.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
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