For a long time, Larry Cuban has been expressing his doubts concerning the miracle effects promoted by many for computers in the classroom. And making a lot of sense in the process.

But, he’s an even bigger skeptic* when it comes to one-to-one programs.

In this area, I hear again the outlandish claims of technology champions that giving each student a laptop will revolutionize teaching and learning–and, yes, increase test scores to boot.

The argument for each student’s having a laptop goes something like this: Every student has a textbook, pen, and paper; therefore, every student should also have a computer. Computers are tools of the trade, so to speak.

Cuban notes that despite well-publicized anecdotes about increased student motivation and interest, there is little research that demonstrates actual increases in learning.

In fact, he notes that at least one major study showed that fewer computers, used well could have a much greater impact.

Consider, for example, the work of Judith Sandholtz and her colleagues on the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, or ACOT, program between 1985 and 1998.

The original ACOT project distributed two desktop computers (one for home and one for school) to every student and teacher in five elementary and secondary classrooms across the country, eventually expanding to other classrooms and schools. ACOT researchers reported positively about student engagement, collaboration, and independent work, much as 1:1 researchers do today.

But they also found that for teachers to use computers as learning tools, a 1:1 ratio was unnecessary. In elementary and secondary classrooms, a half-dozen computers could achieve the same level of weekly use and maintain the other tasks that teachers and students had to accomplish. Few people, however, have ever heard of the ACOT experiment.

So, why have so many educators, not to mention politicians, jumped on the one-to-one bandwagon?

What causes enthusiasts to attribute gains in achievement to laptops? Again and again, officials mistake the medium of instruction–laptops–for how teachers teach. Smart people have said for decades that personal computers, laptops, and hand-held devices are only vehicles for transporting instructional methods; machines are not what teachers do in classrooms. Teachers ask questions, give examples, lecture, guide discussion, drill, use small groups, individualize instruction, organize project-based learning, and craft blends of these teaching practices.

In other words, it’s not the computers that make the difference. It’s how the devices are used by teachers.

However, unless schools provide teachers with the time and support necessary to learn how to make the best use of the technology – and unless everyone is open to major changes in how classrooms are organized – the machines are a big waste of money.

*To read the whole article you’ll need a subscription to EdWeek. Or “borrow” one from someone who has no clue what that code number on their mailing label is for. :-)

laptop, education, Larry Cuban