The ongoing debate over the renewal of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) reflects a broader challenge regarding current public perceptions about education. No one today questions the value of school districts purchasing pencils, paper, and textbooks for students to utilize in their classrooms and at home. Since people have extensive experience with these tools and resources in their own educational backgrounds, their necessity is generally taken for granted.
Not so (at least not yet) when it comes to student laptops.
Portable, wireless, laptop computers will be the pencils of the 21st century classroom. In classrooms engaged in 1 to 1 laptop learning initiatives now, this is already true. According to PEW Internet and American Life Project research, the Internet is already the place most students (who have access to it) choose to go first for information they need both at school and at home.
Many adults misunderstand technology as serving primarily as an alienating influence that encourages people to live their lives increasingly “distanced and distracted,” to quote from “High Tech/High Touch: Technology and Our Accelerated Search for Meaning” by John Naisbitt. This can be true, of course, but increasingly technology is used to help people establish and maintain social connections. A recent BBC article about additional PEW Internet Project research indicates Internet and computing technologies are serving as “social glue” to help solidify and develop both face-to-face and virtual relationships.
As former Maine governor Angus King noted in a speech to Maine educators in April 2005, in several decades we will probably look back at this era and laugh about how people actually debated the value of students having laptop computers in schools. Of course students need these tools to become literate in the 21st century! But sadly this debate is not a joke today, it is very serious. And we need to all do our part to help educate our neighbors, our school board members, our campus administrators, and our fellow teachers. Many students already understand and accept this view, particularly those already engaged in 1 to 1 laptop learning.
A major challenge is convincing others to spend limited school funds on laptop computers. But the greater challenge is actually getting teachers to employ laptop computer technology effectively with students to encourage higher order, in-depth thinking. In our era of high stakes testing, it is much easier and common for teachers to rely on didactic, content-centered instructional methods rather than project-based learning or open-ended student investigations which lead to the creation of knowledge products that are much more authentic and valuable. This can be “messy assessment” when compared to neatly bubbled scantron sheets submitted to state education agencies, but it also can be much more valuable and impactful for students.
Laptop computer technology is just like any other tool: it can be abused and used poorly or it can be leveraged powerfully to engage students. The major difference is the instructional philosophy with which the teacher approaches the educational enterprise. Why are we here in school? Do we just want students to fill out a virtual worksheet on the computer instead of a xeroxed worksheet with a pencil? Hopefully not. We need to use computer technologies in schools to help students cultivate REAL relationships with real people. We need to help students develop authentic literacy skills, not just good test-taking strategies valued only in the context of classrooms focused on high-stakes accountability. There are safe, protected ways to do this! The recent report about Newark, New Jersey 4th grade students showing a dramatic improvement in their state writing test scores after regularly emailing partner students in Italy is a case in point.
No, we do not need to provide laptops to students and teachers in our schools just so test scores can go up. There is so much more to a quality educational experience than what is reflected in a test score of any type. But laptops are the pencils of the twenty-first century. We need to provide our learners with the tools they need, and help equip teachers to effectively employ them in the classroom of today and tomorrow.
Teachers cannot and must not wait until all their students have laptops to engage students in authentic learning contexts via technology. ePals offers a superb environment for teachers to safely engage in collaborative writing projects. Computer technology and Internet connectivity is already a fixture in our classrooms. We do need laptops in the hands of students and teachers, because one to one immersion can be transformational for learning. But our greater challenge remains and will remain the effective employment of educational technologies for worthwhile educational ends, which go far beyond merely improving test scores. We need to get serious about preparing students to be digitally literate netizens in the 21st Century. They need our help, and so do our teachers. Nothing less than the future of our society is at stake.
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