A laptop in every knapsack

Computers can spark a learning revolution, says the author of a new study of technology and education. But how will we pay for it?

Published October 1, 2003 9:33PM (EDT)

I'm on the board of the PTA at my children's public school, Malcolm X Elementary in Berkeley, Calif. At our last general meeting, while making a pitch for new members, our president discussed the various ways that PTA-generated funding helps the school. We help pay for programs -- sports, drama, music -- that are threatened by state budget cuts. We offer after-school classes. We give money directly to teachers for supplies.

No one at the meeting talked about the possibility of getting a laptop computer for every fourth or fifth grader in the school -- a goal that Bob Johnstone says, in his entertaining and informative "Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning," should be realized in every school district, for every child. The school barely avoided laying off 11 teachers last year, and class size in the fourth and fifth grades shot up to as many as 32 kids per class. The idea of laptops for students at Malcolm X strikes me as entirely outlandish. I don't live on that planet.

Which makes me all the more wistful as I consider the photograph on the cover of "Never Mind the Laptops" -- a grinning principal walking in front of a phalanx of Australian middle-school girls, each of whom is carrying a Toshiba laptop and is dressed immaculately in the school uniform (black shoes, white socks, checkered dress). It is jarring -- the photograph seems like it must be science fiction, and yet it was taken more than a decade ago.

That children should have access to computers goes without saying. There's no turning back from the computerized future. And, if one of Johnstone's key theses is correct -- that enough computers, used correctly, encourage precisely the kinds of innovative, risk-taking, cooperative learning that our children will need most to flourish in a globalized information economy -- we shouldn't be afraid of a future where students are always logged on. We should be striving to make it so.

The obstacles to achieving Johnstone's vision -- funding, maintenance, training -- are huge, but there are outstanding pioneers to watch. There is the experience of the Melbourne school that Johnstone details, the pathbreaking Methodist Ladies College. Closer to home, last August, Maine provided laptops for every seventh grader in the entire state. Private schools all over the world are requiring or requesting that parents buy laptops for their children to use at school and at home. Educational software is improving, the price of hardware steadily drops, and a generation of teachers who have grown up with computers is moving into schools.

And yet, from where I sit, in California, Maine's example doesn't seem very applicable, nor does a semi-elite private girl's school Down Under. I can't imagine parents at Malcolm X, who are struggling desperately just to afford an after-school program to baby-sit their kids while they work full-time, ponying up for laptops -- no matter how attractive the leasing arrangements or airtight the insurance and warranties.

More provocatively, there seems to be a real question to me whether politicians and parents in the United States even want the kind of education for their kids that computers, if we are to believe Johnstone, will provide. For Johnstone, a laptop for every student will usher in a new era of progressive education: Children will be encouraged to break out of their shells, to explore what interests them, to gain confidence in their creative potentials. But in California, the pressure from on high is to warp teaching toward ensuring that students do well on standardized tests. That's anything but progressive, especially when one is dealing with elementary schoolchildren.

I bring up my worries not to criticize Johnstone, but to provide some context. Johnstone is a booster, albeit a smart and sincere one. "Never Mind the Laptops" is historically deep, thoroughly reported, and unafraid of exploring the subtleties of its subject. It's not just a paean to technological progress, but also an examination of how kids learn and how they should learn. It is, without a doubt, indispensable to anyone interested in the topic of computers and education. But in its fundamental optimism that the obstacles will be overcome, it may be a little awry. Far more likely, it seems to me, than a future in which every student has a laptop, is a future where those who can afford to have their kids in private schools will reap the huge benefits that a broadband, wired and wireless future has to offer, while those who can't afford it will slip further and further behind.

Bob Johnstone has always been one of the liveliest and most passionate writers about technology in the media universe. Long before the days of Wired and the dot-com boom, long before I even personally owned a computer, I used to read his columns in the Far Eastern Economic Review simply for pleasure. He had a way of writing about the latest developments in LED display technology that drew me in, even when I didn't understand half the things he was talking about.

That passion, along with his breadth of technical knowledge, makes me trust him in a case where my predisposition is to look askance. When apostles of technological deliverance start preaching about kids and computers, the spittle is soon flying, and the superlatives quickly get out of control.

But kids plus computers isn't always a simple equation. When my children (currently 5 and 9) were smaller, I steered them away from computers, in part due to research that indicated that too much time spent at a keyboard might even be harmful to very small children. A developing brain needs to spend time grappling with the real world, not the virtual. There's also very little evidence that starting a child with a computer at age 3 gives him or her any particular advantage over a child who starts at age 8.

But I'm prepared to believe that, when integrated correctly into an older child's education, computers can have a liberating impact. The comprehensiveness of Johnstone's reporting is convincing. He tells the stories of too many effusive teachers and reviews too many case studies to be talking out of his hat. Although there are times when he does sound like an unreconstructed dot-commer, I'm inclined to believe that he's more credible for making his argument now, when everyone else has stepped back from the hype.

Johnstone's focus on educational theory and the history of computers in education distinguishes his account from other treatments of the same issue. Unsurprisingly, the notion that kids can benefit from computers has been a part of computer science from the get-go. Among the legends of computing who appear as bit players in "Never Mind the Laptops" are Alan Kay, the man who first conceptualized the laptop and led the development of the pioneering Alto computer at Xerox PARC, and Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who wrote the programming language LOGO, which was later incorporated in Lego's Mindstorm robot system. More ominously, there is also a strong role here for Microsoft and Bill Gates. Where better could there be a convergence between Gates' philanthropic instincts and Microsoft's business growth than in the spread of computers in education?

Interwoven through the historical account is a treatment of the long-running debate in educational circles over how best to teach children, with or without computers. It's refreshing to note that for at least a century, educators, parents and politicians have been unhappy with the state of education in the United States. It's nothing new to be moaning about it now, in California or elsewhere.

What is really intriguing, however, is how the belief that computers inspire creativity and empowerment and innovation dovetails with the recurring critique that progressive educators have had of curricula that in the past have relied on rote learning, or that have been blamed for taking energetic, curious youngsters and turning them into alienated drones.

I was a fourth grader when the so-called Open Movement surged through schools in the early '70s. I recall a couple of years in which I pretty much did what I wanted -- including playing a lot of chess, and endlessly reading books. I remember those years fondly, and I'm sure that if I'd had a laptop to play with, I would have fallen in love with it, too. It seems intuitively right to me that kids will respond to the power and possibilities of computers -- that they will, as have so many grown-ups before them, thrill to the way a computer eliminates drudge work and empowers productivity. There are a couple of iMacs in my daughter's fourth grade classroom, and the teacher uses them to help put out a class newspaper. Who doesn't feel like an instant publisher when a computer and a printer are in reach?

But the obstacles, again, are ensuring equity of access, and providing funding. Johnstone repeatedly makes the argument that even in disadvantaged school districts that have no money to spare, there are ways to get laptops in the hands of children. Schools can arrange leasing plans, get breaks on insurance, set it up so parents are paying as little as $50 a month. If we will it to happen, he says, we can make it happen.

I'd love to believe it. I'd also love to believe that if we willed it to happen, we could fully fund our schools to the point that quality teachers aren't in danger of being fired; that, as happened this year at Malcolm X, orchestra classes for fourth graders aren't cut because of a budget shortfall; and that funding for schools isn't warped toward incremental improvements in test scores that require teachers to drop everything in favor of what will result in the best chance of passing a multiple-choice exam.

If ever there was a place for the federal government to make an impact, this would be it. Instead of a chicken in every pot, it should be a laptop in every backpack. Politicians should be twisting the arms of manufacturers to come up with a cheap educational computer for school use; they should be setting up the insurance and warranty plans; they should be, as a matter of national interest, demanding that the market serve the needs of our nation's future.

Instead, they are letting the market serve itself. Which means that public schools struggle, private schools flourish -- and the future? Well, maybe it belongs to Australia.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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