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Lots of Computers in the Classroom

09 Sep 2003 by Jason Fried

So, two more schools/districts, one in Illinois, and one in Alaska, are going to be buying laptops ( Apple iBooks) for their students.

District 54’s iBook program is modeled partly after one in Henrico County, Va., where 44,000 elementary, middle- and high-school students are using the machines. High school students there last year recorded their highest SAT verbal and math scores ever.

The article also mentions “there have been conflicting studies on computers and education, with some arguing that technology isn’t a proven way to help kids learn, especially given how much it costs.” The Schaumburg, IL program has a total budget of $6.6 million which includes the iBooks, wireless Internet access for the classrooms and 21 digital video cameras.

I’m trying to figure out how having a laptop with wireless internet access on every desk actually helps kids learn (although the way my friend David is using iBooks and OS X-based software/technologies at Copenhagen Business School is pretty impressive). Sure, it gives them access to a nearly unlimited amount of knowledge (some fact, some fiction, some hard to tell), but I’m curious as to how they are being integrated with the teachers’ lesson plans. Are they distracting? Are kids listening to the teacher, or just staring at the screen? Do they respect what the teacher has to say, or do they just “listen” to the internet? Are they being taught how to filter information on the net? How are they actually using the machines? As typewriters and web browsers, or in more progressive ways? Has anyone had any experience with this? Any teachers out there? Parents of students with laptops in schools?

74 comments so far (Post a Comment)

09 Sep 2003 | husband of elem. teacher said...

Macs or not, from my experience, computers are not needed in public schools - not at least until high school. They are a major distraction, usually there is no one in the school trained well enough to support the network or administer the computers. It's a collosal waste of money on behalf of the taxpayer and an easy, "fire and forget" sale for most of the vendors.

09 Sep 2003 | David said...

This post made me think more about the collaboration issue and how students become broadcasters.

09 Sep 2003 | Don Schenck said...

husband ... You mean ... you mean ... you mean just spending money won't improve education?

I'm shocked!

09 Sep 2003 | Brad Pineau said...

I can't believe that schools are actually going to spend millions of dollors on this. It's a great idea, in theory, but I can not see kids paying attention to their teachers. They will no doubt be using some sort of instant messenging service, or writing emails, or browsing websites.

09 Sep 2003 | dmr said...

This digusts me seeing as my state funded college (USF in Tampa) has almost no budget for the electronic media program under the Fine Arts department (current budget for Fall semester was zero, however we were able to retain lab fees from students, something like $50 per student for maybe 80 students). The Fine Arts dept. as a whole is the most under-funded dept. in the entire school. 45,000 students in the school; I guess art ain't important.

The kids don't need screens and keyboards, lets get real. Save it for high schools and colleges.

09 Sep 2003 | One of several Steves said...

Providing students with computers makes sense at university. Making computers available makes sense in high school and junior high.

They're completely unnecessary at the elementary level, IMO. Computers are great tools - but they're just tools. Just like i have to know what's going on before I just fire up the jackhammer, I need to know what's going on before I start using the computer. I have to know how math works, how to write complete sentences and spell, etc. before I ever touch a computer. THat's what elementary school is for.

09 Sep 2003 | husband of elem. teacher said...

Ha Don! No, not at all. As much as I would like for my incredibly gifted and dedicated wife to earn a little bit more money, but putting more dough into public schools won't solve anything. Parent(s) are the problem with today's student - but no politician wants to say that. The conditions that some of her students live in are appalling - and yes, DFACS knows.

09 Sep 2003 | husband of elem. teacher said...

One more thing...even with child protection software installed, a search for beavers will still provide for an embarrassing situation.

09 Sep 2003 | ryan said...

Computers are great. My brother is a teacher and his lab is loaded with brand-new computers -- running Netscape 1.2 and IE 3.

09 Sep 2003 | asdf said...

My wife cannot use the county's web based grading app because permissions aren't set to allow form data to be posted. The person who would correct this problem apparently does not exist.

09 Sep 2003 | Tim said...

I remember when we were using Apple IIs in elementary school (third grade, I believe)...we spent hours doing stuff in Delta Draw. I don't know how much we learned, but it sure was awesome to make the turtle draw those spirograph shapes...

One thing I have a problem with is that it would seem like provided kids with computers would mean that schools would have to first teach kids how to use computers...and THEN they could hypothetically learn from them.

Maybe kids these days (I love saying that) are much more adept at picking up computing, but learning to use a computer in order to learn about...animals, for instance...seems a lot more involved than picking up a book to learn about animals.

Of course, I am not well acquainted with Elementary School applications...perhaps they are so sublime that kids don't even need to know they are "computer apps."

09 Sep 2003 | Drew said...

It all depends on how it's used.
The real question is: Do the teachers even know how to use the computers?

No doubt, the kids probably do.

09 Sep 2003 | COD said...

If you look at the statistics, test results, etc - a good percentage of these kids can barely read. What good is a computer to them? Computers can be a very good tool for early elementary education. We homeschool the kids and have had great success using the PC to augment traditional curriculum. However, at that age it requires 1-1 effort teacher to kid, and they obviously are not going to get that in a class of 30.

09 Sep 2003 | Darrel said...

Kids like computers. If it helps them like school a bit more, then I'm all for it.

Granted, I'm not sure if I'd spend my money on individual computer prior to other needs (like teacher salaries, better schools, new textbooks, etc.)

That said, with the textbook issue, computers can be a great remedy to a inevitable problem. Textbooks are really expensive, therefore don't get updated much, therefore teach children rather outdated things. If a computer can supplemant or replace an outdated textbook, that's not all bad.

Also, I don't think these are sitting on the desk every hour of the school day.

I do think these would be more useful for highschoolers than grade schoolers.

The Fine Arts dept. as a whole is the most under-funded dept. in the entire school.

Guess why? Fine Arts graduates don't go on to run giant companies who want to donate back to the school. Fact of life. It infuriates me too ;o)

Realize that state schools thrive of corporate donations. As such, some departments (in my Alma Matter, it was Graphic Arts [printing] and Hotel Resturaunt) get money, while others (the Fine Art program, Early Childhood) don't.

but putting more dough into public schools won't solve anything.

I agree about the parent thing. That's the weak link. But money can certainly help a lot of struggling schools if/when spent right. Not that I'm saying new laptops for grade schoolers is spending it right.

09 Sep 2003 | chris rhee said...

One of my high school's had a laptop program (I think it still might). When I was there, it was mostly the freshmen getting them and they just pirated music and listened to said music. And talked on AIM because it was kewl.

So last year our district had a multi-million dollar budget cut and many programs were shut down. Maybe if they had a little money saved up from not buying hundreds of laptops, it would've turned out differently.

09 Sep 2003 | Edward Cossette said...

FYI the Henrico deal is for high schoolers and not elementary students. The company I work for is one of their vendors/partners and I can tell you the program seems to be working quite well.

The computers are seen as another tool for the teacher and student. It's not an either or situation.

09 Sep 2003 | clappstar said...

The biggest excitement regarding computer learning in elementary school I have heard of was parents bragging, err, I mean excited, that their kids put together their own Power Point presentation. Now that is really what we need, kids learning Power Point. Ugh.

The little turtle drawing command line style computer game we had in 5th grade ('86) was cool because it taught basic programming and computer jargon. Little kids seem to soak up technology, so why not teach them fundamental programming skills or basic computer language logic.

Most elementary classes use them for "free time" if you get done with your assignments early.

It is important, however, to have them available in schools, particularily public schools, because some kids don't have them at home and would be unfairly left ignorant to what is today the central technological tool used in all parts of business, government and private life. With the computer you must invest in the right type of teacher training. Don't send a teacher to summer tech camp to learn Power Point. That is a waste. For sure, the computer doesn't augment the learning without a complimentary investment in the teacher.

09 Sep 2003 | kev said...

not sure, but perhaps the saturation of elementary schools with computers may curb that type of freshman activity. on the other hand, what do you do with your computer? that's right.

anyway, kids are computing at an earlier age these days. if research when they're adults is likely to be internet-based, why not encourage that behavior at younger ages? not to completely replace book-learning, of course, but to enhance it?

i'm just saying thay maybe finding information on the web and learning from it might be a little more enriching than the other alternatives to "media" learning.. videotapes, for starters. how many of use loved video days when we were kids because you go to goof off when the lights were out...

09 Sep 2003 | kev said...

...And actually, my son's kindergarten teacher has a .Mac homepage she uses as a blog, with password-protected photos taken of activities in the classroom! this was nice to see, and she's a kindergarten teacher! imagine what a 5th grade teacher could do, when the students can read and respond to what she writes. i just don't get the "computers are for adults and teenagers, let the children catch up when they get to such and such age.."

10 Sep 2003 | david said...

I can see how providing computers in a poorer district. For students who don't have much access to technology, the laptops could make a big difference.

However, the small ohio public school district (about 1500 students k-12) I attended just instituted such a program, where all middle-schoolers get ibooks. It seems like such a waste to me. This is a fairly rich district. Practically every kid already has access to at least one computer (w/internet) at home, and the school district already has a tremendous amount of computers available. To buy computers for kids already so priveledged is simply a terrible waste.

We need to get resources to those students who really need them, not to those who have more than enough already.

10 Sep 2003 | chris rhee said...

I agree with David. I posted before about how my district implemented a laptop program. (Almost) everyone at that school are in families that already have at least 2 computers in the house. A laptop is just another toy to them. A laptop would be a useful tool (slash toy) for those who can't afford computers in their house.

10 Sep 2003 | David S said...

School districts get their money from the surrounding community, so, obviously, rich neighborhoods will be able to afford computers for the kids. Let them spend their surplus as they please.

On computers in school... I think they are a good tool, but I don't think there needs to be a 1:1 ratio of kids and computers. There was a computer lab at my elementary school and we'ed go there every so often and do stuff, nothing of which I remember being useful. In Junior High I don't know if I ever touched a computer on campus. Maybe checked my email once or twice in the library. The same thing in high school.

If kids don't have access to a computer at home, computers at schools and libraries are great resources. But I don't see how it would help having one for each kid in a classroom. Maybe for rare occasions, they could have a "class set" that teachers could check out when they needed them.

Oh, and if I was the admin, I'd block everything but port 80. Keep them restricted to the interweb. If the kiddies learned to set up their computer with Linux and funnel all their traffic through port 80, more power to them. At least they're learning!

10 Sep 2003 | david said...

Let them spend their surplus as they please.
I agree that a certain amount of income disparity among districts is not necessarily wrong. However, when a district has so much income that it can afford to enter the realm of outright waste, even while nearby districts are in continual states of crisis, I think that is wrong. I am talking about districts that replace perfectly functional buildings with expensive new ones for a very marginal level of improvement.

I know it's somewhat an odd concept, but why shouldn't a rich district (after covering all of its own needs) "tithe" a portion of its income to poorer districts (or to a special state fund, which would help out the very poorest schools)? Or, failing that, at least voluntarily place itself out of competition for grants and state funds that would better serve poorer schools.

10 Sep 2003 | kev said...

everyone can come up with personal anecdotal evidence supporting one view or another.. for instance, i used a computer at least twice a week in elementary school and every day in junior high, and for a number of classes each day in high school. in fact, the discovery of photoshop (among other things) while working on the first entirely digitally printed HS newspaper in colorado led me to my eventual graphic design career choice. hell, in junior high i was programming LCII's with PASCAL, using language constructs and syntax I still use to this day. computers were a very influential part of my childhood and subsequent teenage years.

c'est la vie, i guess, that other people didn't have those opportunities who now feel that other kids don't need them. i'm often one of the youngest people in an office, and am certainly at least one of the youngest here. i'd love to hear other younger people's views on this.

10 Sep 2003 | Hugo said...

My sister had a laptop when she went through high school (here in Australia, years 8 - 12), and it was a complete waste for her. She knows how to use the internet, but with both her brothers and father being technology addicts, there was no shortage of computers in our house. Before I moved out, 4 desktops and at least 3 laptops at any time.

My sister uses the net for filesharing and music, and also for finding the lyrics to her favourite pop songs. She uses ICQ and IRC too, but that's it. Her laptop lay in her locker for weeks on end, unused. Then it was stolen. Since it is school policy for all students at the highschool to have a laptop, another one was purchased through the school. Which sat in it's locker for months on end. We eventually rescued it and my brother and I used it as a digital music platform before donating it to our father for word processing during his trip overseas.

So while the laptop was useful, it was a waste of money really (it was also a really crappy, slow Toshiba). We had our own laptops, and only used it because it was spare. The highschool she attended was an upper-class private school, and no doubt every household had at least one internet ready PC or Mac. Add to that the very nice computer labs and library resource centre type arrangement they have going on, there was really no need for all the students to have laptops. The teachers didn't know how to impliment them, and for the most part they were used as bulky, inefficient graphics calculators, which served no purpose except to cost the parents money.

I think that if the teachers have the skills to impliment laptops into the study curricula, then great, buy the damn things. But it is potential that is too easily wasted. Let's wait until every job except manual labour is computer-based. Then, let's start looking at it.

And teach it to teachers properly first.

10 Sep 2003 | Melda said...

David - your comments are noble: why shouldn't a rich district (after covering all of its own needs) "tithe" a portion of its income to poorer districts.

and oh how I wish it were so. the truth is that all that money allotted to them must be spent in its entirety, for failing to do so would indicate that fewer funds could be allocated to them next year. that's how frivolous spending can be justified.

i feel that the weakest link is not parents (alone) but lack of a panel or group pressuring the higher-ups to re-allocate these funds to arts within the school and higher wages for teachers.

10 Sep 2003 | Tibloto said...

Macs or not, from my experience, computers are not needed in public schools - not at least until high school. They are a major distraction, usually there is no one in the school trained well enough to support the network or administer the computers.

My wife will be in charge of running the iBooks in one of the Schaumburg schools next year. I'll be making sure she's on top of her game. ;)

10 Sep 2003 | monkeyinabox said...

Back when i was in school having computer access would a neat tool. There were no games on the machines really (maybe Oregon Trail and Bass Fishing back in elementary school), but later on if you went to the lab you could program and that's about it. Now a days it's surf the web, email and play Flash video games. There's no creativity or learning there.

11 Sep 2003 | Begger said...

Now that is really what we need, kids learning Power Point. Ugh.

lol. what's worse? learning a program that 98% of corporate america uses, or learning to do it on a computer that 5% of america uses? therein begs the question...

11 Sep 2003 | alisha said...

computers yes. internet access no.
---
This digusts me seeing as my state funded college (USF in Tampa) has almost no budget for the electronic media program under the Fine Arts department
---
I agree. Even worse are university graphic design depts where 30 students share 2 computers. What a frigginījoke! the other day an agency I recently started working for said they were looking for a designer who was fresh out of design school, but out of 40 applicants only a handful were computer/software literate! they couldnīt be hired. Can you imagine paying for a degree that is all theory and almost no practice?

13 Sep 2003 | carlos said...

i dont know ...

15 Sep 2003 | jan said...

sure, kids will simply be distracted sending and receiving emails

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05 Jan 2004 | diseņo web sevilla said...

I think that if the teachers have the skills to impliment laptops into the study curricula, then great, buy the damn things. But it is potential that is too easily wasted.

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20 Jan 2004 | Hosting Peru said...

This digusts me seeing as my state funded college (USF in Tampa) has almost no budget for the electronic media program under the Fine Arts department (current budget for Fall semester was zero, however we were able to retain lab fees from students, something like $50 per student for maybe 80 students). The Fine Arts dept. as a whole is the most under-funded dept. in the entire school. 45,000 students in the school; I guess art ain't important.

The kids don't need screens and keyboards, lets get real. Save it for high schools and colleges.

20 Jan 2004 | FRank Stwardt said...

Back when i was in school having computer access would a neat tool. There were no games on the machines really (maybe Oregon Trail and Bass Fishing back in elementary school), but later on if you went to the lab you could program and that's about it. Now a days it's surf the web, email and play Flash video games. There's no creativity or learning there.

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