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Have Laptops Flunked the Test?

Last spring, the city launched a pilot program to provide a free laptop for every student at seven middle schools on the Upper West Side The “One-to-One in Ten” program (so named because it takes place in School District 10 and aims to achieve a one-to-one student to laptop ratio) had a modest beginning. But City Councilmember Gale Brewer, the chair of the council’s technology committee who championed the program and represents most of the Upper West Side, hopes that every public middle school student in New York City some day will have access to a laptop at school. Eventually some advocates thought the students might even be able to take their computers home at night.

Brewer’s enthusiasm is based upon research that shows that using laptops encourage students to engage more deeply with their coursework. The so-called one-to-one programs also seek to prepare students for the technologically driven world in which they live and to close the digital divide between students who have computers and those whose families may not be able to afford them.

But a problem has arisen: There is little evidence that students who use laptops in class do better on standardized tests than students who do not. Since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, a school’s aggregate performance on standardized tests has become of foremost concern for school administrators. Given this reality, a national backlash against laptops in the classroom is brewing just as New York City has begun to embrace the trend.


New York City is far from alone in using laptops for educational purposes. Maine has launched a similar program, and many Maine teachers who worked in one-to-one laptop initiatives are now advising others about how to begin similar programs. A study of 2,500 of the country’s largest school districts conducted last year found an increasing number gave all students and teachers computers connected to the Internet, sometimes for use at home as well as at school.


In general, though, evidence seems to be emerging that technology is not a cure-all for the nation’s classroom. A recent Department of Education study, for example, while not considering the laptop programs, looked at 15 software programs used in schools and found that they did not lead to higher test scores.

On the other hand, as the Times recently reported, school district are seeing a downside to the computers. Many districts find that they spend too much time and money fixing and maintaining the computers. One letter writer to the Times pointed out that maintenance is a greater problem with Windows machines than Apple products. But regardless of the type of computer, students use them to access educationally trivial (and sometimes pornographic) web sites. Students at one suburban Syracuse school, the Times found, used the laptops to exchange test answers and view pornography. When the school tried to stop that, some students found a way around the increased security – and used the computers to tell their fellow students how to do that.

Faced with all of this, school districts that serve a diversity of student populations — some affluent, some poor, and with various ethnic groups — are abandoning their laptops


So, have the defenders of laptops in the classroom lost the debate? Is it time to revert to the chalkboard and the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic? Not so fast, argues Bruce Lai. Lai is Brewer’s chief of staff and an expert on how to increase broadband Internet access in underserved areas of New York City

He points out that many of schools abandoning their laptops programs have students who have ready access to broadband Internet connections at home. He worries, though, that taking a similar step in New York City’s school will “consign working-class students” to a technological apartheid. According to a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 21 percent of households with an annual income of $30,000 or less had a broadband connection at home in 2006.

Lai and educational research consultant Saul Rockman also question some of the reasoning that has led schools to abandon laptops. The goal of laptop learning, they say, is not to improve standardized test scores, but rather to capture the imagination of students as they work on projects that would either be impossible or much more difficult without a computer. For example, the students in Maine reportedly used laptops to create a book in Spanish for children in Guatemala, an activity whose benefits are difficult to quantify with standardized tests.


Another barrier to the success of laptop programs is teacher resistance. Instructors who are used to teaching the traditional way may resent the introduction of laptops into their classrooms. “The box gets in the way,” Liverpool, New York, school board president Mark Lawson told the Times.

Teachers who perceive a potential benefit for laptops in their classrooms and are willing to change their teaching style to allow for increased student control of learning are more likely to take a positive view of one to-one laptop programs.

Laptop programs should take this into account. Lai points out that meaningful plans for integrating technology into the classroom – and addressing resistance to change among teachers — are just as important to the success of the computing plan as the laptops themselves.

Such cultural changes take a long time to occur but some are working on it. Teaching Matters is a New York based non-profit that seeks to hasten the process. Believing that technology can improve learning if it is used properly, they provide assistance in the classroom as well as workshops and on line help so teachers can make better use of technology

In the meantime, researchers from Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center have begun to evaluate the efficacy of the “One-to-One in Ten” initiative. Surely there is room for improvement, but one hopes it will find some signs of greater student engagement with their own learning. But that might not be enough. In today’s world, educational assessment is driven by standardized exams, and classroom laptop programs may fail the test.


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