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For Some, Laptops Don't Compute
Va. School Pushes Wireless Learning

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006

Two years ago, every student at T.C. Williams High received a wireless laptop computer. Alexandria school officials described the venture as a leap into the future of education and a way to close the digital divide.

But Liza Conrad stashed her 3 1/2 -pound Hewlett-Packard 4010 at home after she got it. For the most part, she left it there.

"Mine was pretty much under my bed all last year, except for one time a quarter, when it was mandatory," the 18-year-old senior said. "I thought it was just a pain to have to lug it to school."

Other students also said they ignored the snazzy machines at the outset, and some teachers hesitated to incorporate them into lessons. Critics called them "expensive paperweights," and this year, several school board members questioned the academic payoff of a $1.65 million annual expenditure that is thought to be unique among the region's public schools.

"My daughter and most of her friends, they don't find it to be useful at all," said board member Scott Newsham, who was elected in spring and is the father of a T.C. Williams student. "I think the decision was made to bring computers into the school system before they really knew what they were going to be doing with them."

Mel Riddile, an award-winning administrator hired this year as the high school's principal, also had questions about the laptops. When school began in September, he said, "the biggest thing I had is, why aren't the kids using them more?"

Riddile and school system officials moved swiftly to ramp up the initiative. Their goal is to make the machines indispensable, linking them to electronic textbooks, classroom projectors and other academic tools.

The school extended its library hours this fall to offer a place to use the Internet for research. (The entire campus is a wireless hot spot, with filters to block inappropriate Web sites.) The school also implemented an interactive online program called Blackboard, which allows students to use their laptops to participate in class discussions, organize work, take tests and check assignments, among other things.

Many educators see school-issued laptops as the wave of the future.

Alexandria has leased about 3,400 computers for students and teachers and added six full-time positions for support. The system is insured against losses from lost or broken computers. Administrators say that fewer than 1 percent are lost each year, and many of those are recovered.

But some experts question whether laptops contribute to student achievement.

"There have been studies that try to show that laptops and test scores are related," said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. "There have been correlated rises but . . . no evidence to show that simply giving out laptops will raise test scores or close the achievement gap."

Alexandria officials say it is too soon to gauge laptop-driven achievement gains, because T.C. Williams started issuing the machines in fall 2004 to sophomores, juniors and seniors, and the Minnie Howard School, which feeds into T.C., began distributing Dell laptops to ninth-graders in fall 2003.

Officials say that implementation could have been better. "There have been lessons learned, definitely," said Elizabeth Riddle, the system's instructional technology coordinator. But after the slow start, she said, "the payoffs are great."

Across the nation, student laptop programs are increasing "by leaps and bounds," said Don Knezek, chief executive of the International Society of Technology Education. He cited statewide programs in Maine and Michigan, among others. He also said some studies have shown that such programs improve achievement.

Alexandria officials say that Loudoun County schools and even other countries have sent delegations to observe the T.C. Williams program.

Under Virginia law, funds for this program must be appropriated each year, so school board and community members will need to be convinced of its value. The laptops have been leased for four years.

Alexandria school officials say they are in for the long haul. The new T.C. Williams campus, due to open next fall, will have wireless access, and the city has announced plans to go wireless next year.

Many students have been won over, including Conrad. "I use my laptop for 100 percent of my physics and 100 percent of my government class," she said. "It makes everybody really organized, even the most disorganized of my friends."

Teacher training has also intensified.

"I think they made the realization that they may have put the cart before the horse," said G.A. Hagen, a technology resource teacher at T.C. Williams. "It was like, 'Okay, teacher, here's the laptop -- go with it,' and [teachers] were like, 'What do you mean, go with it? Is there a Web site I go to?' "

Nearly all T.C. Williams teachers have been trained on Blackboard. They will be required to make their courses available on the system by Jan. 8 and to use the program regularly by June.

School Board Chairman Arthur E. Peabody Jr. said this week that he is impressed with the Blackboard technology but that teacher training had not come far enough.

Hagen said that young teachers tend to adapt more quickly but that many veterans have also come around.

"The ones that resist it the most, it's sort of like, 'Look at Mikey -- he likes it!' "

But some teachers say they have felt pressured to emphasize laptops, even when using them might not be the best approach.

"You absolutely have to show that you're using them in some way, shape or form," math teacher Mercedes Huffman said. Sometimes, she said, students "have benefited from certain things I can do with a computer that I couldn't do before."

But Huffman said computers can be less efficient than paper in a discipline that often requires writing out problems or drawing figures. "There've been times when a geometry class said, 'Couldn't we have just done this on paper?' "

Another teacher, who did not want to be named for fear of angering administrators, said: "There's a big drive now to get everyone to do as much as possible on the computer. There's a real divide between those who see the computers as an end in itself and those who see them as a tool."

Others have embraced the laptops.

Mary Beth Kochman, chairman of the English department, said laptops won't replace books but will make course materials more accessible and help students who don't have computers at home. "I do think it has leveled the playing field," she said.

In Myron Hanke's physics labs, Excel spreadsheets have replaced graph paper, and students use the laptops to continue classroom discussions after the bell rings. Hanke said that once his students started using laptops, "grades in all my classes went up."

Some classrooms have gone virtually paperless, with most work done on the laptop. Riddile hopes to replicate this across the board. In two years, he said, "we'll have had hundreds of schools coming in here to see how we did it. This will be a national model here, I guarantee it."

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