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Questions Remain about Laptops in Schools

Laptops are the future. That seemed to be the mantra in public education around the turn of the century. With much fanfare, the state of Maine gave all its middle schoolers laptops. And districts like Liverpool, NY followed suit. Last year, it looked like the party was coming to an end. Liverpool publicly scaled back its program. Assistant Superintendent Maureen Patterson told NPR at the time that it just wasn't worth the expense.

PATTERSON: We decided that we needed ask if it's improving student achievement, if instruction with technology was doing that, and student use of technology was improving student achievement. Was it increasing our student graduation rate, was it decreasing our drop out rate, and the answers were No!

Proponents of so-called one-to-one laptop programs - where each student gets a computer to take home - say it's premature to sound the death knell. They say it's all about the execution. ideastream® education reporter Dan Bobkoff takes a look at programs here in Northeast Ohio.

The future of education, say laptop proponents, looks like something Garth Holman's social studies classroom.

The lesson this day at Beachwood Middle School, links the architecture of ancient Rome to today, and kids turn to their laptops to go to work. Some are searching for images and putting together a flow chart. Others are watching movies from the web.

One student is alternating between his laptop and a traditional textbook. Student Jake Lowencamp says it's great that the kids get to choose the way they want to learn.

LOWENCAMP: Some people like to learn by watching movies, so they'd get more out of it by watching a movie. I like reading a little more, so I get more out of reading from the textbook than watching the movies.

The Beachwood district has loaned each seventh and eighth grader a laptop since 2003. Teacher Garth Holman says they're starting to replace the traditional pencil, paper, and books.

HOLMAN: I can podcast to them readings, they can download them on to an ipod if they have 'em. They can download them into iTUnes. A kid will open up iTunes, there's podcasts from me, movies I sent.

Holman says this lets kids learn at their own pace. If they missed something in the lecture, they can just rewind the recording.

And even his students are podcasting.

But is all this actually improving learning? Holman says most parents are blown away by what the kids are doing with their laptops in his classes, but as seventh grader Hannah Rubinstein says, Holman is still the exception to the norm,.

RUBINSTEIN: He uses it more creatively. A lot of teachers don't assign us much work on the computer.
REPORTER: Do you find that some teachers aren't really taking advantage of it?
RUBINSTEIN: At times, yes, they haven't really grasped what more they can do in the class.

That jibes with what Larry Cuban has found. He's a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, and the author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.

CUBAN: Most teachers don't use it that way and most kids aren't engaged in that way.

Cuban says the research on one-to-one laptops is inclusive at best.

CUBAN: You can't prove that introducing one-to-one laptops will indeed lead to academic gains or test scores or whatever the measure is. You just can't show that.

And in fact, some schools have given up on the program, citing few measurable benefits, expensive repairs, and even some misuse of the computers.

Oberlin City Schools superintendent Geoffrey Andrews faced a skeptical public when he and the school board tried to pass a broad one-to-one laptop program in that city. All students from 6th through 12th grade would have received computers, but the voters there defeated the proposal.

Still, Andrews remains confident that laptops are the future, and that he's seen them used in other communities with positive results.

ANDREWS: Behavior issues down, truancy went down, it changed the teaching and learning environment so that it became a place where students wanted to learn.

With the cost of laptops falling fast--some now cost about the price of two science text books-Andrews and others believe that the debate over laptops will calm down once costs come under control, and more teachers, like Garth Holman, take full advantage of the technology.