Let Them Eat Their Laptops

More than 25 years ago, when I was editing an environmental monthly called Chinook Winds, I ran a small piece on the astonishing percentage of Americans who believed that technology would one day fix all the problems we faced. With it, I placed a cartoon of a person with machines growing out of his skull.

Even then, I thought it nuts to believe that technology can fix things. But it ain’t the technology, it’s the way it’s used that can help make things better.

In yesterday’s New York Times is an article called “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops” by Winnie Hu. Apparently quite a number of schools decided that laptop computers were going to solve all their problems, so bought them and threw them into the classrooms. Now (surprise!) they are disappointed with the results.

So, officials in Liverpool, NY have pulled the laptops from the classroom. They said that:

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.

Where does one start? Of course they don’t fit into lesson plans, unless the teachers have been trained in making a laptop a tool. Of course they don’t affect grades and test scores, when the grading systems and tests were created before the laptops ever came to school. Of course there is resistance… what teacher likes being told what technology they must use. And what do you expect? Give fragile computers to kids and not have problems with them?

One of the suppositions about computers in education is that it means that the students will be sitting at a screen in class. As a teacher, I like to have them available in class, but like even more the idea of closing them so that the primary function of class time—teacher/student interaction—can take place.

Some people, though, seem to think it is an either/or: computers all the time or none of the time. The article makes such a contrast:

In a 10th grade English class the other day, every student except one was tapping away on a laptop to look up food facts about Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King for a journal entry on where to eat. The one student without a computer, Taylor Baxter, 16, stared at a classmate’s screen because she had forgotten to bring her own laptop that day.

But in many other classrooms, there was nary a laptop in sight as teachers read from textbooks and scribbled on chalkboards. Some teachers said they had felt compelled to teach with laptops in the beginning, but stopped because they found they were spending so much time coping with technical glitches that they were unable to finish their lessons.

So?

Isn’t that the way it should be? Laptops used when appropriate, and not otherwise?

As a teacher of writing, I want my students to have laptops (or computers of some sort) available for rewriting and editing. Only sometimes do I want them open in front of them in the classroom.

One of the things we need to be teaching in all of our classes, from my college classes on down, is “neteracy,” the ability to comfortably and effectively negotiate the Web. Without computers in school, our students will not be so efficiently or quickly “neterate,” for they will not be guided through the Web, but will have to discover its pitfalls and possibilities completely on their own. Sure, this isn’t something that shows up—yet—on standardized tests or in grading, but it is as important to our students’ future as almost anything else they are getting in school today.

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