Reading, Right-Clicking and 'Rithmetic

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005; 9:57 AM

When I was in grade school a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away (South Jersey), we were under orders to cover our textbooks with protective jackets, usually cut out of brown-paper grocery store bags.

How on earth will today's students manage that for their laptops?

It's a silly question, but it reflects a development happening around the nation: School districts increasingly are outfitting their pupils with computers instead of textbooks in a bid to create an all-digital classroom in the 21st century.

The laptop trend captured national headlines a few weeks ago when the Vail Unified School District near Tucson said it would convert one of its high schools into an all-laptop environment. In an article that ran July 10 in the Arizona Daily Star , Mark Schneiderman of the Software and Information Industry Association said that the Vail move was rare, but laptops are gaining more ground in school districts across the nation.

The New York Post today reported that hundreds of sixth-graders at 22 schools will receive laptops from the city's Department of Education when they go back to school this year: " A department spokeswoman confirmed the laptop plan -- the first of its kind in the city. 'We're still finalizing the details,' said Margie Feinberg. Education officials chose sixth-graders to use the computers at school and at home because "they're young enough to be familiar with computers but old enough to be responsible with them," Feinberg said. The department also plans to convert all of its computer labs to wireless over the next five years, officials said. More than 800 of the city's 1,100 schools are already set up with wireless connections. It's unclear how much the laptop computers will cost, but they will be paid for from capital funds. "

The Post said that similar programs are being sponsored by state governments in Maine, Michigan and New Mexico. Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have pilot programs in place, the paper said.

The Berkshire Eagle covered the story in Massachusetts: "Teachers at Pittsfield and North Adams middle schools have begun training for the Berkshire Wireless Initiative, which will begin in the fall. James Stakenas of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, co-chairman of the initiative's steering committee, told the [Pittsfield] City Council on Tuesday night that workshops have taken place with 'integration specialists' and teachers who will help middle school students use wireless laptop computers as learning tools."

New York mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer (D) upped the ante, saying he would provide a free laptop to every public high school student in the city if he gets elected, the New York Sun reported. I don't have a subscription to the Sun so I can't tell you much beyond the summary. In it, reporter Meghan Clyne wrote that the cash to pay for the program would come from a court-ordered payout: "The former Bronx borough president's proposal on computers for student use came as he detailed how he would spend the additional billions of dollars in financing that state courts have ordered for the city's school system, as a result of a lawsuit filed a decade ago by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity."

You can read the details on Ferrer's Web site . The New York Times also ran a story on the plan .

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal ran a story on the Lausanne Collegiate School where Barry Gilmore's senior English class is using laptops as well: "At Lausanne, all of Gilmore's students have laptops, so the only books they read in class are the novels they study. Lausanne decided two years ago to require all seventh- to 12th-graders to have laptops. The school has more than 500 on campus now and is ordering fewer textbooks as laptops and CD-ROMs take over. ... Teachers say the laptops have allowed more creative instruction and have improved student-teacher relationships."

The article noted, however, that while engagement and morale are up among students, performance improvement has been "marginal, at best."

Laptops Generate Heat

Other signs of pitfalls abound. In a previous edition of this column, I cited a Boston Globe story about student Paloma Stanley, who lost her laptop and would have been barred from her graduation ceremony had an anonymous donor not sent in the cash to cover the loss.

Iowa State Education Association officials have come out against the laptop program as well, according to the New York Post article cited above: "'Technology is great, but we think there are some higher priorities than that,' said Brad Hudson, a lobbyist for the union that represents most public-school teachers."

Education officials in Lowell, Mass., are taking some flak for fighting truancy by offering laptops to students who missed no more than eight days and enrolled in college or the military after graduation. On top of that, the recent ceremony to hand out the first batch of laptops encountered a snag, as the Lowell Sun reported :

"After a bumpy first year, the controversial Laptops for Lowell attendance-incentive program concluded last night with the much-awaited presentation of computers -- and a final glitch. Only 35 of the promised 76 computers were sitting in the Lowell High School cafeteria when the 6 p.m. event rolled around. 'We have a problem,' said Dave Conway, the housemaster who created the program as a way to address excessive absenteeism and sinking college enrollment in the senior class. The crowd of about 150, consisting of students, parents and grandparents, shifted uneasily in the hot cafeteria. 'I don't know if you've ever heard of Murphy's Law,' Conway continued. 'There's always something that's going to go wrong.'"


And there's no mistaking the tone of this headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution : "Bombshell May Unravel Cobb Laptops." The lead paragraph of Mike King's column isn't much more optimistic: "It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the Cobb County Schools' laptops-for-students program jumped the tracks and started careering down the hillside toward the train wreck it is today."

Here's more: "The county's district attorney has been asked to determine whether the bidding process was rigged to make sure that Apple became the favored supplier. His investigation will likely lead to a grand jury probe. And the school board ... has decided to hire an auditing firm out of New York to look over the whole bidding procedure. Lost in the bombshell of that disclosure was the reason for the lawsuit in the first place: that the school district pulled a bait-and-switch on voters in 2003 when they got them to approve about $70 million in sales taxes for new technology but never told them it would be used to purchase 63,000 laptops for students and teachers to take home with them. A Cobb County judge is expected to rule on that claim in the next few weeks."

I'd say something about the road to Hell, but I'm sure you already know how it got paved.

New Adventures in Distance Learning

Some students are using laptops, desktops or whatever tops work best to dig into online coursework, the Miami Herald reported .

The story profiled Elon Richman, a 16-year-old Miami Beach junior who was busy turning in his Spanish homework ... from outside Tel Aviv. "Elon is one of about 200 high school students in the district who are taking online courses this summer through the Miami-Dade Virtual School, a franchise of the state-funded program. Virtual school allows students to take more than 80 classes -- including advanced placement courses -- while on summer vacation or during the regular school year," the Herald said. "Florida Virtual School, which started in 1997 and enrolled about 33,000 students statewide in 2004-05, mirrors a national trend in which a growing number of students are plugging into cyberlearning. According to a March report by the National Center for Educational Statistics, an estimated 328,000 students around the country took distance-learning classes in the 2002-03 school year, the most current data given."

The story said school districts in Broward County and Tampa are using online courses after canceling or cutting back summer school programs. But some skeptics want to know how the trend will include rural and low-income students without easy access to the Internet.

Others worry about the social implications: "Joretta Hawkins, who began teaching English on the Internet two years ago, questions whether cyberlearning can provide the same social education that can be found in brick-and-mortar classrooms. ''Students don't get to interact online,'' Hawkins said. 'As far as replacing people gathering in the classroom, that should never happen.'"

This might, however, be just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to bullies. Just a thought.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company