Well, no one is likely to hire me as a futurist. But it doesn’t many predictive skills to see that portable computing is the direction things are heading in education. While there are some issues to be worked out – battery life being the big one – it just makes sense to have the flexibility that comes with laptops and other portable computing/communication devices.
Some districts and states have already recognized the potential and have implemented programs giving laptops to some of their students. The governor of Massachusetts has proposed doing that for all middle and high school students in the state, possibly using the $100 laptop being developed by MIT.
Unfortunately, much of the focus, not to mention the money, in these "one-to-one computing" projects goes to the hardware. Other important factors, required to make the machines into useful tools for teaching and learning, tend to get lost and underfunded.
The result is that governors get some great photo ops and little real change in education. At least the writers of an opinion piece in the Boston Globe understand there’s more to instructional computing than just the computer.
One lesson is the necessity of professional development for teachers. Laptops can catalyze positive changes in teaching and learning only if teachers take the lead through effective use of the technology to transform classroom instruction, and if teachers and principals learn to use technology to help them make sound instructional decisions based on achievement data. This will require training and support.
Teacher training is certainly one of those vital pieces that is often minimized in these programs, although that’s getting better. But the part about making "effective use of the technology to transform classroom instruction" is the important factor here. It’s also the most difficult part and the slowest to implement.
However, this is the real bottom line for any use of computing in the classroom.
Students will recognize this initiative as a vote of confidence. They see that the world is changing rapidly and that to compete they must master the computer and the Internet with newfound information age skills. If we challenge them to excel at writing, presentation, collaboration, analysis, and logical thinking — and give them the tools to meet those challenges — they will create a prosperous future for themselves and for our Commonwealth.
"Writing, presentation, collaboration, analysis, and logical thinking" – that’s a great list of the real world skills all students should be learning in our classrooms. However, most American schools are currently set up to teach memorization and recitation skills, regardless of the type of technology used.
Putting laptops in the hands of students and teachers will not by itself produce real change. Training teachers how to use computing as part of the traditional curriculum is one step better. Using technology as a catalyst to completely reform teaching and learning should be the ultimate goal of any laptop project.
Without that, all the money, effort, and time spent on laptops will be wasted.