© 1997 (Australia) Computelec
Australia, Ltd. & (USA) Gary S. Stager
Kids with Laptops - The Antidote to Educational Computing
A Commentary by Gary S. Stager
Forward to the Past
A small part of my 1970s high school education was quite
wonderful. A smart adult got a hold of a mainframe timeshare
and several terminals for
student use. His approach was, have fun, see what you can figure out
and lock up when you are done. I got to school early to use the
computer, spent my lunch hour in the computer room (the lab idea had
not been invented
yet) and stayed after school programming long after most of the teachers
had gone home. If you are imagining a group of socially isolated nerds,
not be more wrong. The high school computing environment provided one
of the richest, most collaborative learning experiences of my life.
The absence of curriculum, testing and teacher surveillance contributed to
a learning culture in which we invented nearly everything we knew about computers
and solving problems. There were few manuals, no software and no home computers.
We constantly challenged one another and ourselves. We ran after-school classes
to teach other kids to program. We learned persistence through debugging and
working on one project for months.
I made my own computer games and a primitive email system. I played the games
designed by friends. Every discovery led to new questions and problems to solve.
Eventually we had a few terminals with acoustic couplers and an original TRS-80
Model One available for use to take home over weekends and holidays. I remember
the excitement of gathering my family around to see my program and have the
computer crash after 45 minutes of loading the program from a cassette tape.
We felt invincible. There was no problem we could not solve. We not only
fell in love with programming, but with learning too. Bill Gates had
a similar experience
in an independent school 3,000 miles away. Had our teachers decided that
the computers should be used in the educational fashion common
in schools today, we would have run out of the room screaming - never
to return again.
The 1980s and 90s saw schools consumed by the idiotic notion of computer literacy.
Computers would come to be used to teach a very small set of business computing
skills to children with little use for them. Make no mistake, what can be done
in a computer lab is precisely what can be accomplished in a computer lab.
Even the best teachers find themselves designing activities which may be completed
in 22 minutes, or less if every kid must touch the keyboard. After nearly two
decades of computer literacy, few kids are more literate and even fewer can
A self-fulfilling prophecy is at work. Schools satisfied with occasional computer
literacy excursions to the computer lab will never need additional computers.
Teachers who hand drill-and-practice software to students to use on the computer
in the back of the room never need to embrace technology as an instrument of
their own learning.
Ive spent the past fifteen years trying to recapture the spirit
and learning found in my high school computer room. The use of laptops
Australian schools affords children with the unprecedented freedom to
learn in and out of the classroom.
Laptops - An Obvious Solution
The implementation of laptops in schools, begun in 1989 by MLC and the Queensland
Ministry of Education, was based on a few obvious truths:
- Computers would continue to be smaller, cheaper
and more powerful
- Society is being altered dramatically by the widespread
proliferation of microcomputers
- Computers may be used by children to me more creative,
expressive and collaborative
- PC means personal computing - a place where you
store your work and thoughts
- The richest way for schools to use computers is
based on the ideas of Seymour Papert and constructivism
Such initiatives would be immediately interpreted by many of my American colleagues
as pilot projects or research experiments. Pioneering Australian schools
committed to the idea of personal computing for all students. All of the
planning, implementation and professional development were focused on realizing
Laptop schools are clearly on the right-side of history. These schools are
confronting the challenges and opportunities of the communications age head-on.
It is arrogant of the education community to suggest that computers wont
have as dramatic impact on schooling as it has on the rest of society.
Seymour Papert describes two categories of ways in which computers may be used
in education, instructionism and constructionism. The instructionist views
learning as the ability to recall facts transferred to you by a human being
or computer program. Content is valued over context. Someone far away from
the child has decided what is important for all children to know. Drill-and-practice
and some tool software typifies this approach.
The constructionist views learning as the personal process of constructing
knowledge. People learn because there exists a need or context for learning
something new. Learning most easily occurs through the act of making something
- whether that is a connection, sculpture, song, poem, conversation or computer
program. Each learner is central to the learning process. MicroWorlds and other
versions of Logo exemplify the constructionist approach to learning with computers.
I view the two acceptable ways in which schools use computers as: 1) to do
work; and 2) to learn with. There is nothing at all wrong with using a computer
to write, publish, research and increase productivity. However, the goal of
school should not be increased productivity, but rather to develop the habits
of mind leading to a lifetime of joyful learning. Doing work should be the
secondary focus of school computing.
Anytime, Anywhere Any_??_
Youve all heard the hype. Laptops allow kids to learn anytime, anywhere...
The piece of the puzzle left out by the salesmen, politicians and many educators
is what should kids be doing with the laptops. Even educators who have successfully
used laptops in their classrooms tend to gloss over the ways in which they
use them when asked to report on their experiences. The educational function
of the laptops too often takes a backseat to the euphoria over laptop ownership.
Even today, magazine articles and conference papers scream out stories announcing
that Upper Toowoomba Lower School Got Computers! In the next issue is another
breathless article announcing that Lower Toowoomba Upper School Purchased Computers.
There is a gee-whiz quality to the discussion of computers in education that
probes little more than the superficial fact that a particular school bought
a handful of computers. Buying laptops may even get you a mention on television
by Bill Gates! Manufacturers are allowed to get away with claiming credit for
the success of hard-working educators. Isnt it about time that we get
over ourselves and get busy?
I hesitate to refer to the little computers as notebooks because unimaginative
educators have taken the term literally. This is why you hear such hyperbolic
discussions of kids word processing their way to wisdom. The ad copy often
suggests that kids can write anywhere, anytime and then print out their work
later. This is an expensive high-tech version of 1) write a few drafts in pencil;
2) write a final draft in pen; 3) get your Dads secretary to type the
Word processing is a major innovation. I know of no person who ever word processed,
decided it was a bad idea and went back to pencil and paper. Im using
it to write this article. However, word processing is a purely mechanical act.
Sure, it can enhance the writing process due to the ease of editing. It does
not teach anything and has only one function - the application of symbols to
paper. I teach five year-olds and graduate students to word process in 5 minutes. Type
some letters and press the backspace key when you mess up. OK now, saving and
printing. In the hands of a skillful technology teacher word processing
may consume a nine year scope and sequence followed by a VCE course.
Writing is a rich, creative and expressive intellectual act. If owning a laptop
somehow managed to quadruple the writing output of a student, it still would
not justify the investment of $2,000 per student. The amount of database and
spreadsheet work done by a typical child adds about $7 more to the value of
the computer. If all you expect of your students is that they will use a computer
to take notes, then $200 mobile word processors and PDAs exist already.
This is but one of the reasons why Apple Computers new eMate is such
a profoundly bad idea. Children need better technology than adults, not worse.
What volume of writing do we expect kids to do that requires an expensive machine
for storage? Proponents of devices like the eMate tell us that they are thin
clients. Corporations use thin clients, small single-purpose
computers to collect data and designed to share that data with a larger network
of computers at a later time. Schools are not businesses and dont have
MIS department employed to keep the systems operational or have at least one
full-featured computer per worker. Children using thin clients like
the eMate will write a few paragraphs and then go back to school where they
need to somehow connect the device to the one Commodore 64 with dot matrix
printer in the classroom. The eMate is hardly a computer. It is an electronic
Children need computers versatile enough to follow their imaginations and expectations.
Schools need teachers who will use computers in imaginative ways designed to
Its the Software Stupid!
If the primary goal of education is, as John Dewey states, growth, then along
with the implementation of laptops one should expect that the school will grow. The
expense of purchasing laptops, providing infrastructure and offering professional
development should be justified by the expectation that every element of traditional
schooling (curriculum, assessment, scheduling and the role of teachers) should
be called into question. In the best settings, laptops provide schools with
not only a window on the future, but also a microscope on the past. Past practices
and even content are called into question. This provides a rare opportunity
to make schools better places to learn, for teachers as well as students.
In my opinion, the success and acclaim associated with the use of laptops in
Australian schools is directly related to the constructionist goals of those
schools. The choice and use of specific software, LogoWriter and now MicroWorlds,
is responsible for much of the well-deserved attention Australian laptop
schools have enjoyed. Thoughtful and widespread use of software, like
MicroWorlds, justifies the investment in a laptop.
MicroWorlds represents the latest generation of constructive software for kids
developed by Seymour Papert, the Father of Logo. With one piece of software
children are able to animate historical events, mess-about with
concepts on the frontiers of mathematics, compose music, present multimedia
reports, illustrate poetry, design their own video games and much more. The
best thing about MicroWorlds is that it often allows students to employ strategies
associated with different disciplines to be used at once. It is precisely the
computational and extensible nature of MicroWorlds that leads to such powerful
MicroWorlds was designed to have no threshold and no ceiling. Five year-old
John Richardson uses MicroWorlds to animate his fantasy play and recreate computer
games. Josie Hopkins senior school science students use MicroWorlds to
build genetic and physics simulations. Countless other children employ their
creativity and ingenuity while using MicroWorlds to satisfy aspects of the
curriculum. 24-hour access to personal laptops allow children to learn outside
the lines of the curriculum. MicroWorlds offers learners a rich intellectual
laboratory and vehicle for self expression.
Laptop ownership allows students to go beyond the expectations of the school
schedule by giving their MicroWorlds project the time they deserve. Kids frequently
learn a great deal by creating MicroWorlds projects of their own design on
their own time.MicroWorlds supports the growth of schools in the following
- The best MicroWorlds projects are open-ended and
child-centered. This challenges our traditional notions of school
work and scheduling.
- Teachers will observe all sorts of serendipitous
connections made between subject areas while students work with
MicroWorlds. This provides an opportunity for serious consideration
of interdisciplinary learning.
- Student learning with MicroWorlds tends to be collaborative
- Teachers may rekindle their passion for personal
learning by learning with MicroWorlds alongside their students.
- Teachers are reminded that less is more. Kids learn
a great deal more in the act of making something than by meeting
countless decontextualized curriculum objectives.
- Work tends to exist in new forms and lives on the
screen, rather than on paper.
- New types of projects require new forms of assessment.
- Class size matters when students are working on
twenty or more different projects simultaneously.
- Fluency with computers is best achieved when students
are able to create all sorts of work in one software environment.
Every time I lead children or teachers in a MicroWorlds project
I am struck by the excitement, passion and purposeful effort exhibited
by the learners. In the hands of a great teacher, MicroWorlds affords
a wide variety of learners an opportunity to succeed in their own
Some of you are probably thinking to yourself, Hyperstudio or Toolbook
satisfies the same educational objectives as MicroWorlds. I can not disagree
more vigorously. While Hyperstudio allows students to create wonderful presentations
and book reports, that is all that it can do. Hyperstudio has cool multimedia
elements in it, but it favors cutting and pasting over computation. Kids will
spend a long time mastering Hyperstudio before they discover that it doesnt
do anything THEY want to do with a computer.
Multimedia Toolbook is too cumbersome and idiosyncratic to be used purposefully
by more than a few select students. Schools concerned with teaching employable
skills would be better served by teaching Director, mTropolis, Java or modern
Neither Hyperstudio or Toolbook are based on thirty years of research with
kids or a desire to transform schooling. The types of simple hypermedia projects
kids design with these packages would find a much larger audience if published
on the web. In fact, MicroWorlds will generate simple web pages too.
To Tool or Not to Tool?
I have serious concerns about the future viability of schools that favor
business productivity software over constructive software designed specifically
for children. The conservatism inherent in such an approach may fortify the
status quo and do little qualitatively different to make schools better.
Much of what schools do with tool software is designed to teach
specific aspects of the software itself or to satisfy a narrow curriculum requirement.
Such activities should be questioned. Many topics are made irrelevant by computers
or may be better addressed without them. It takes a great dose of imagination
to use an integrated package in a new way. Such tools were designed to do one
or two things very well.
The current love affair with presentation software stalls personal expression
at a very primitive stage. Many student slide shows require no
more writing than an outline and have all of the individuality possible from
clip-art. Bulleted presentations are great for selling cars or providing visual
cues during a long speech, but do little to inform. Presentations are but one
form of communication. Students should use them where appropriate.
My strong comments regarding the adoption of software by schools, particularly
laptop schools, is in response to the absence of such advocacy in other forums.
School leaders often believe in the myth of software hierarchy. First we
will learn Office and then maybe our teachers will be ready to use student-centered
software such as MicroWorlds. There is absolutely no merit to this sort
of thinking. Teachers are employed to enhance the learning of children, not
perform additional clerical tasks.
It is just as easy for a teacher to learn about computers while using software
designed for children as it is for them to learn business software. It takes
a small miracle for most teachers to make the leap from using tool software
for personal purposes to finding constructive ways to employ open-ended software
with their students. Students are ready to use child-centered construction
environments from the start.
The Cure for Software DuJour
Software DuJour is the last refuge of scoundrels. Teachers reluctant to use
computers often clamor for newer or additional software. This strategy is often
employed successfully to disguise their own inaction. Do not be fooled! In
my opinion, students need two pieces of software installed on their laptops,
MicroWorlds for open-ended learning and an integrated package for doing work.
More extravagant schools might also wish to invest in an Internet browser (free),
email client (free) and modem for each student machine. Schools should not
even attempt to provide remote Internet access from outside of school. You
are educational institutions not telecoms. Groups of schools should negotiate
with Internet Service Providers (ISP) for discount family access. School information
and resources can be available via the World-Wide-Web regardless of your current
location. Students can get personal email accounts via the ISP. Teacher email
accounts should be accessible on any machine connected to the Internet anywhere.
The most ambitious schools will add specialized discipline-based tools such
as Geometers Sketchpad, Interactive Physics or Microcomputer-based Lab
software where appropriate. Professional educators in individual departments
should be responsible for selecting appropriate software and hardware. It is
preposterous for members of the I.T. department to dictate the needs of the
science or art departments.
Some of the finest uses of laptops involve the combination of MIDI synthesizers
and student laptops. Music is no longer a spectator sport. Children can now
compose and perform music at a level of sophistication impossible just a few
In fact, we should judge the success of school technology use by how well it
enables to students to enhance their current abilities. Sylvia Weir refers
to the computer as an information prosthetic. Schools should use computers
to explore domains of knowledge and the arts not possible with other media.
In any discussion of school change, buzzwords abound. We hear that in
the future teachers will be facilitators, guides on the side, and
coaches. Whats wrong with teachers being recognized as teachers? Medicine
has changed in countless ways over the centuries, yet the practitioners are
still called doctors.
Our leaders predict that future teachers may actually walk around the room
and see what the kids are doing. Imagine that! The best teachers do more than
feign interest in student work and pretend not to have the answer to their
question in the back of their teachers guide. Great teachers, today and in
the future, get on the floor with students and genuinely together to solve
problems. The rich variety of learning challenges made possible by laptops
and the limitless information of the Internet makes this especially true.
At the risk of appearing hypocritical I would like to offer a new metaphor
for those of you who cant survive without a new term for teacher. Allow
me to suggest the metaphor of teacher as learning producer. All
sorts of media and communications businesses employ producers. The producer
supervises workers, assembles the best teams, organizes materials and provides
the support necessary to ensure the best work possible from her colleagues.
Professional Development by Memo
Professional educators should be expected to use professional tools. Computers
are professional tools. Schools have a responsibility support for these expectations.
I am often asked how to get teachers to use computers. I am inpatient with
the question since I believe in the professionalism and and competence of teachers.
I also understand that schools do not always make expectations clear or provide
adequate support. It is often as easy as asking teachers to use computers in
their classrooms to get the ball rolling.
It is extremely difficult to get teachers to do new things, especially if you
never ask them to. It should seem obvious, but it is not uncommon for teachers
to ignore hundreds of laptops if they are never asked (or expected) to use
them during their classes. On the other hand, it is unreasonable to expect
teachers to dedicate the extra effort required to use computer technology if
they lack adequate access. How many after school workshops should teachers
attend before they can get a printer ribbon or extra six minutes of lab time
during this calendar year. I am sure that other articles in this book addressed
the importance of ensuring that teachers have access to laptops.
My experience suggests that immersive professional development workshops provide
the richest opportunities for teacher learning. Such multi-day events allow
teachers to experience what is like to learn in an open-ended project-based
collaborative environment. However, no one form of professional development
works for every teacher. A wide variety of professional development opportunities
need to be offered on an ongoing basis. Innovative teachers should be rewarded
with in-school sabbaticals during which time they can mentor colleagues in
classroom settings. Teacher learning is life-long too and requires opportunities
for the continuing development of skills and expanding visions.
The major obstacles to systemic computer-use are the result of educational
complacency, not technology. John Dewey knew everything we know today about
education one hundred years ago. Professional development focused on the timeless
issues of curriculum, assessment, cooperative learning, child-centered learning
and the teacher/student relationship makes technology integration make sense.
Child-friendly classrooms are technology-friendly too.
(More detailed information about professional development and leadership for
laptop teachers may be found in the references).
One last suggestion deals with staffing. If every teacher is expected to use
computers in constructive ways, then there is no need for lots of technology
specialists and coordinators. The creation of this new bureaucratic level strains
financial resources, discourages teachers from taking ownership and insulates
school administrators from making important educational decisions.
While it is certainly important to reward teacher initiative, schools make
a serious mistake when assigning specific software expertise to one teacher.
It is counterproductive to announce that Mr. X is the new Word coordinator
and Ms. Q is the robotics expert. This only serves to keep knowledge in a few
different heads and is especially troublesome in computing since things change
so quickly. Switching software packages or versions becomes a personnel issue
rather than a simple change in software. Expertise should be shared.
I am enormously proud to have been associated with the wonderful Australian
educators who are inventing the future one laptop at a time. Their students
have a warmer feeling towards school and have created work of uncommon quality.
The challenge for the future is finding a way to make laptop use more universal
in each school. There are still far too many teachers hiding in the rest area
on the information superhighway. The innovations enjoyed by these schools need
to be institutionalized and less dependent on the strength of one or two individuals.
A salute you as you embark on this exciting adventure and look forward to collaborating
with you in the future. Please share your learning stories with me online!
Gary S. Stager