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School Laptops - Reinventing the Slate
Silicon Valley Giveth, Schools Taketh Away

© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

A shorter edited version of this article appeared in the March 2003 issue of District Administraton Magazine

In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert, a protege of Jean Piaget, mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer was combining his interests by designing computing environments in which children could learn. Kay was so impressed by how children in Papert's Logo Lab were learning meaningful mathematics that he sketched the Dynabook, a dream of portable computers yet to be fully realized, on the flight home to Xerox PARC.

Kay set out to design a portable personal computer for children on which complex ideas could come alive through the construction of simulations. Dr. Kay recently remembered this time by saying,  "More and more, I was thinking of the computer not just as hardware and software but as a medium through which you could communicate important things. Before I got involved with computers I had made a living teaching guitar. I was thinking about the aesthetic relationship people have with their musical instruments and the phrase popped into my mind: an instrument whose music is ideas."

In 1989, Methodist Ladies' College, an Australian PK-12 school already recognized for its world-class music education, committed to every student having a personal laptop computer. By the time I began working with MLC a year later, 5th and 7th graders were required to own a laptop. The "P" in P.C. was taken very seriously. Personal computing would not only solve the obvious problems of student access, low levels of faculty fluency and the costs associated with the construction of computer labs - the P.C. would embody the wisdom of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget.

MLC Principal, David Loader, understood that the personal was at the core of any efforts to make his school more learner-centered. He was not shy in his desire to radically reinvent his school. Bold new thinking, epistemological breakthroughs, sensitivity to a plurality of learning styles, increased collaboration and student self-reliance were expected outcomes of the high-tech investment.

If the computer were to play a catalytic role in this educational shift, it was obvious that the computers needed to be personal. Truly creative and intellectual work requires freedom and a respect for privacy. Quality work needs sufficient time to think, to experiment, to play. The laptop can only become an extension of the child when it is available at all times. Therefore, there was never any debate about laptops going home with students. Time and time again, the most interesting work was accomplished on the student's time.

We were ecstatic when "laptop" students began to adorn their computers with their names written in glitter paint. This signaled success. After all, ownership is an essential element of the learning process.

A renaissance of learning and teaching catapulted MLC and the subsequent Australian "laptop" schools to the attention of school reformers around the world.

Somewhere along the line, the dreams of Kay, Papert and Loader were diluted by what Papert calls the "idea aversion" of school. Detours along the road to the Dynabook were paved by the emergence of the Internet and corporate interest in the laptop miracle.

Until the explosion of interest in the Internet and Web, individual laptops offered a relatively low-cost low-maintenance decentralized way to increase access to computers and rich learning opportunities. The net required these machines to be tethered to centralized servers and an educational bureaucracy pleased with its newfound control. Computing costs soared, data, children and jobs needed to be protected. The needs of the many often trumped the ideals of individualism.

Microsoft generously offered to bring the laptop message to American schools, but their promotional videos pushed desks back into rows and teachers stood at the front of classrooms directing their students to use Excel to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. Examples of kids composing music or programming simulations were nowhere to be found.

Some schools treat laptops as if they were weapons-grade plutonium.

As entire American districts and states embrace laptops, the child-centered vision of computing becomes a fading memory. The Governor of Maine worked tirelessly to close the digital divide by providing every 7th and 8th grader with an iBook,yet far too few kids are allowed to take their laptops home,. This is even more distressing since the cost to insure those computers is far less than the cost of renting a trombone. The trombone is however expected to go home. In some schools, the insurance cost for every laptop could be covered with bake sale money.

Other districts have procured laptops to nurse hair-brained sci-fi fantasies of delivering instruction and monitoring student achievement by the nano-second. Homogeneity is what they crave.

Kids are no longer trusted to use their laptops in constructive ways, in part due to a lack of models of creative computing. School iBooks routinely come with an irrevocable prohibition on MP3 files, regardless of ownership, and file downloads are verboten. iTunes, Apple's audio software is blocked on student machines despite it being an integral part of iMovie, iPhoto and iDVD. In other words, student multimedia projects MUST be silent since some misguided adults equate MP3s with Napster, limited bandwidth and the Axis of Evil.

One of the problems with the way computers are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, ways of thinking. You don't need a computer for this, but just as with a musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the computer is a great amplifier for learning.

School laptops are not backpack ballast. They can revolutionize education. Imagine what we might all learn if we trust children and keep computing personal.

(quotes from The Dynabook Revisited: A Conversation with Alan Kay. In The Book and the Computer. (2002))

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