Portugal starts distributing laptops to young schoolchildren

But how much difference will such a program actually make?

Published September 24, 2008 2:50PM (EDT)

This week, the government of Portugal began distributing the first of its 500,000 homegrown laptops based on the Intel Classmate PC, itself a rival low-cost laptop to the One Laptop per Child project. Each laptop won't get anywhere close to OLPC's previous promise of $100, but rather will cost 285 euros ($418) each.

Now, while I'm generally against the entire premise of One Laptop per Child and large-scale government programs to bring computers and Internet access to countries that have larger priorities, I'm also against this idea of throwing laptops at kids in the global North as well -- but for a different reason.

Since 2002, Maine has had one of the most ambitious laptop programs in the country, giving all of its seventh- and eighth-grade students and teachers a laptop. While initially there wasn't much improvement, a study from last year concluded that after five years of use, Maine students' writing abilities and test scores improved. However, here's my problem with these results: Yes, laptops may help kids' writing scores improve, but there's scant evidence that shows a significant improvement overall. Further, much of the time, the real difference is made not because of the magic seed of computers but, rather, because the computers are accompanied by better teachers and better teaching methods.

As Todd Oppenheimer wrote in the Atlantic in 1997:

In the beginning, when Apple did little more than dump computers in classrooms and homes, this produced no real results, according to Jane David, a consultant Apple hired to study its classroom initiative. Apple quickly learned that teachers needed to change their classroom approach to what is commonly called "project-oriented learning." This is an increasingly popular teaching method, in which students learn through doing and teachers act as facilitators or partners rather than as didacts. (Teachers sometimes refer to this approach, which arrived in classrooms before computers did, as being "the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.") But what the students learned "had less to do with the computer and more to do with the teaching," David concluded. "If you took the computers out, there would still be good teaching there."

This story is heard in school after school, including two impoverished schools -- Clear View Elementary School, in southern California, and the Christopher Columbus middle school, in New Jersey -- that the Clinton Administration has loudly celebrated for turning themselves around with computers. At Christopher Columbus, in fact, students' test scores rose before computers arrived, not afterward, because of relatively basic changes: longer class periods, new books, after-school programs, and greater emphasis on student projects and collaboration.

More recently, in 2007, the New York Times reported a nationwide trend concurring with this conclusion:

Federal education officials do not keep track of how many schools have such programs, but two educational consultants, Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, conducted a study of the nation's 2,500 largest school districts last year and found that a quarter of the 1,000 respondents already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011.

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not.

Those giving up on laptops include large and small school districts, urban and rural communities, affluent schools and those serving mostly low-income, minority students, who as a group have tended to underperform academically.

I'm not saying it's not important for kids to know how to use computers and the Internet. But there's a base level of knowledge that kids need to have first, in all subjects -- math, English, foreign languages, music, art, science and others. It's foolish to kill some academic programs (even music, as Oppenheimer documents in some cases) in favor of technology acquisition. Kids who have access to computers will quickly learn on their own how to make use of the machinery and how to navigate the Internet as needed.

That said, I did own my first laptop in high school and have sold my old one and bought a new one just about every couple of years since then. Clearly my career of being a professional writer has been bolstered by my countless hours of having access to a computer and the Internet as a child. I grew up in a rich Los Angeles suburb and fortunately had parents who were well off enough that we had Internet access at home pretty much as soon as it became available -- and I know there are millions of American kids who don't have that same opportunity. But I would argue that my success as an adult has more do to with the fact that I got a great education from great teachers in a great school district and less to do with the fact that I did or didn't have a laptop.

I would also argue that kids who are less well off probably need to master other educational skills before they worry about having an extra piece of machinery between them and their teachers.

Even Steve Jobs agrees, and as he said in an interview with Wired in 1996:

I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.

By Cyrus Farivar

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