Laptops alone don't save K-12 schools. Shocking!

There has been much talk/buzz lately about different school districts cutting laptop programs because, basically, they didn’t work. Or at least it turns out that they don’t work like pixie dust; it turns out that if you sprinkle a few laptops into K-12 classrooms, “magic” doesn’t happen.

The kick-off for all this was this New York Times article, “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops.” Given that dropping laptops is likely to cause breakage, maybe this was not the right solution. Anyway, this was followed up in a variety of different places, but I think my favorite and potentially most teachable “text” on this was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” show. The show in question and some commentary is available here on their “Blog of the Nation.” There’s some good links on this site, including to the school district that was the subject of the NYT piece, to this article by Andy Carvin on PBS Teachers called “Schools drop laptop programs– but are they dropping the ball as well?” and something he runs called The Digital Divide Network.

On the show, they interviewed Larry Cuban and Nicolas Neglopante. I heard a bit from Cuban, and while I have a lot of respect for his work, I think he was pretty wrong. I contemplated calling the show myself when I heard some caller who more or less asked my question/made my point: of course laptops in and of themselves won’t do anything if teachers don’t know how to use them and if they aren’t willing or able to use them in their teaching. Schools simply haven’t provided the necessary training or motivation for teachers to make good use of the technology. I’ve heard this again and again from my own graduate students who are secondary school teachers, and I have read it again and again in the scholarship. But despite this being the most obvious of observations about what might have gone “wrong” with these laptops, Cuban simply had no decent answer or response. He even suggested that K-12 teachers are and always have been technologically literate and innovative.

I don’t want to make any sort of blanket statement about K-12 teachers of course, and I wouldn’t want to compare K-12 teachers as a group with higher ed teachers or whatever. But I’ve had lots and lots of secondary school teachers in our MA program in the Teaching of Writing over the years in my Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice, and I can say without a doubt that these students are not usually on the “cutting edge” in terms of technology. Many of them are down-right technophobes. And why should they be techno-literate? They typically teach in schools with crappy computer access, with bad tech support, and with little flexibility for integrating the technology into their classrooms. I mean, I’m not trying to dump on K-12 teachers, but for Cuban to say (as he did, more or less) that 98% of the teachers he worked with were technically savvy is just not true.

I did agree with one thing he said though: laptop programs are an easy thing to cut because they’re expensive, they are “the source” of students doing (quasi)illegal things like downloading music, they enable things like the all-evil MySpace, and they don’t show up as a data point on standardized tests. In that sense, one could argue it’s remarkable that many laptop programs will continue.

5 thoughts on “Laptops alone don't save K-12 schools. Shocking!”

  1. Laptops can easily become toys rather than educational tools. Perhaps the best thing to do is to give out laptops only to student’s who can not afford a computer. As far as teachers who are not as proficient in computer and internet technology, schools can provide courses on computer and internet use.

  2. Here’s the thing though: what’s the line between “computer as toy” and “computer as something I use to learn”? Somewhere along the line, a lot of K-12 teachers (along with parents and school board members and such) seem to have forgotten that one of the main ways we learn is by play. So if a student is “playing” with MySpace of Facebook, aren’t they simultaneously learning a lot? I know I’ve learned a lot from Facebook….

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