The Wall Street Journal syndicated article from August 31st, “Saying No to School Laptops,” reveals the dire need we have throughout the United States and likely around the globe for EDUCATIONAL VISION concerning constructive school reform focused on student engagement and digital literacy. The following is a quotation from the article from a Dell education rep:

Schools are proceeding more cautiously, says Karen Bruett, vice president of Dell’s K-12 education business, which supplies laptops to hundreds of schools across the country. She says that as schools think more carefully about how to best improve learning, they are moving away from a strict one-to-one model and considering other options, such as just giving them to teachers instead.

Why would schools proceed “cautiously?” Because many people oppose change. 1:1 laptop immersion projects should be all about changing teaching and learning in fundamental ways– NOT simply “doing school” with digital tools. We don’t need digital worksheets. We don’t need endless hours of computer-aided instruction. What we DO NEED are opportunities for students and teachers to engage in investigations about real world issues and problems, using digital tools to both conduct research and communicate their ideas with others. Laptop initiatives, to be successful, MUST be focused on transforming predominant pedagogical models of instruction. To simply “give laptops to teachers” and “try to improve learning” as it is traditionally measured is to aspire for failure in a laptop immersion project.

Don’t get me wrong. I think providing laptops to teachers can be a good idea– but the reality for many “digital immigrant” teachers is that a laptop computer, much like their classroom desktop computer, is going to probably sit idle most of the day if several key ingredients aren’t in place at school– and even if these are present, some teachers may still refuse to “play along” and change their ways. Schools need:

  1. Administrative leaders who have instructional vision for teaching and learning that includes INTERACTIVITY and STUDENT CREATION OF AUTHENTIC KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTS.
  2. Administrators and teachers who insist on not only differentiating learning opportunities for students, but also differentiating the assessment methods they use to measure student learning.
  3. An understanding by all educational stakeholders that learning is messy. The standardized tests can’t and won’t come close to revealing the complete picture of whether or not authentic engagement is happening in the classroom on a regular basis– and therefore learning experiences that are NOT FAKED are common, rather than rare.
  4. A “just in time” professional development program that supports continuing learning by teachers in the classroom. “One shot” professional development has a place, but the most significant gains in teacher proficiency with digital tools for teaching and learning come from their peers and from instructional support provided at the time and point of need. This means schools paying CERTIFIED teachers (not just technicans) to be available to hold hands and work with teachers as they take instructional risks– trying new digital teaching and learning strategies with students.

The following quotation from the article reveals the ridiculously simplistic and shallow thinking which many in the media and politics bring to educational discussions:

Few comprehensive studies exist on whether these programs live up to their claims to boost achievement, in part because the initiatives are so new. A preliminary study on the impact of laptops in Texas middle schools released by the Texas Center for Educational Research this spring reported that technology immersion improved student attitudes and behaviors but had a neutral impact on student achievement.

This quotation unmasks the assumption of the writer: “If technology tools like laptops are worthwhile in the education space, then just giving them to students and teachers should automatically result in immediately measureable increases in standardized test scores.” This assumption is ridiculous, yet it forms a key part of the “lens” through which many in the media and our legislatures seem to be looking through in evaluating the impact of 1:1.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it a million more times before I leave this marvelous planet– the only silver bullet for increasing student achievement is A GREAT CLASSROOM TEACHER. Curriculum offers no panacea, high stakes testing offers no panacea, neither do or will curriculum pacing guides, new textbooks, or any type of technology you can buy. TEACHERS are the most valuable instructional resource we have in the classroom. As Jeff Allen likes to say, technology is an amplifier– it can and does serve as an amplifier of good teaching, as well as an amplifier of bad teaching.

What kind of teaching do you think is going on in the classroom where the student quoted in this paragraph from the same article studies?

Abby spent class time sending instant messages to friends and wanted to create a page on social-networking site Her standardized writing-test scores fell, too. So Ms. Adam handed back the computer and pulled her daughter out of the laptop program, which is this year expanding to five schools. “What she learned was how to play games and email her friends,” says Ms. Adam. “School was one big happy gabfest.”

Are we really to believe that the teacher in this classroom was completely helpless to stop the students from instant messaging and communicating via DSN sites? Did the laptops enter the picture, and suddenly the teacher become bound and gagged in the back of the class– unable to even suggest that the students work on an assignment or read something included in the district’s curriculum guide or part of the state’s educational standards?

Give me a break. I don’t know who “Abby’s teacher” was and is, but I am sure he/she was not incapable of directing the digital natives in his/her care. Are laptops in the schoolhouse a disruptive thing? Of course! Most digital immigrants– teachers and parents included, are MUCH more comfortable with the sight of students seated in neat rows in a classroom, with a textbook on their desk along with a number two pencil and a sheet of lined notebook paper. But is that instructional environment inherently more engaging and worthwhile than a classroom where every child comes with a laptop? No! The technology immersed environment is likely to be more inherently engaging, because of the engaging content and communicative potential which the laptop contains and promises.

We not only need our students to be engaging in safe digital social networking, we also need them appropriately instant messaging at school. We need kids to be blogging respectfully and safely at school, so they’ll be well-prepared for the digital communication challenges and opportunities they’ll face in life. Laptops should be disruptive of traditional education. This is why we desperately need to work on refining the VISION our educational leaders and other educational stakeholders have for what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Teaching and learning shouldn’t be what it used to be.

Thanks to David Warlick for this article reference.

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