Tech Leadership

Personal Computing ≠ Laptops for Everyone

by Jim Hirsch

It’s February 1992 and the excitement is running high as students in Mrs. Case’s English 3 class become the first one-to-one “notebook” experiment in our large suburban district. The tool — the recently released Apple PowerBook 140, with its unheard of computing power, built-in floppy drive and hard drive with a high-quality grey-scale screen in a portable device. We all knew the future had arrived!

One day later, reality sets in as the tech-support requests begin — software mysteriously appearing and disappearing; sporadic printing (ah yes, those PhoneNet cables in the pre-wireless days), glaring needs in teacher pedagogy and curriculum development; and a few other nuisances. But the students did pay attention in class and loved the fact they had their own notebook computer to work with, long before Internet access was even a thought.

What did this experiment provide? Two primary findings: Laptop cost and battery life prohibited the scalability to any reasonable degree, and without appropriate curriculum development and instructional strategies, teachers and students alike were left trying to make a promising technology fit an outdated education model.

Systemic Deficiencies

Fast forward to fall 2007. Hundreds of schools are promising new educational opportunities with one-to-one laptop initiatives. In fact, a survey conducted in 2004 by the Hayes Connection found 23 percent of the school systems that responded indicated they are implementing one-to-one computing programs in at least one grade. Wireless networks allow almost unlimited connectivity and the Internet promises to keep students engaged in all content areas.

The two primary findings from all laptop initiatives over the last five years differ little from those in 1992. Cost and battery life are still classroom and scalability prohibitors and curriculum and instruction development have not caught up in a systemic way. Most projects rely on individual teachers or small teams that devise unrelated activities to take advantage of laptop use by each student — rather than use a uniformly designed curriculum to tap the power of the technology in teaching.

While educators and researchers applaud the pioneering efforts at one-to-one initiatives, the fact remains that hardware/software/support funding, along with training and curriculum development, cannot be sustained at the level required to provide millions of students with laptops and appropriate learning activities. This begs the question: Can you provide personal computing experiences for all students in highly engaged classrooms without a laptop for each student?

For the purposes of this discussion, the answer to the question “Is personal computing in schools the ability to provide students access to technology resources on an ‘every minute, everywhere’ basis?” is no. Personal computing means students should have ready access to a variety of technology resources in the classroom to assist their learning on an as-needed basis.

So how does personal computing support differentiation efforts?

In many curriculum and technology discussions on this topic, the logic goes like this: Multitasking enables differentiation; technology enables multitasking; therefore technology enables differentiation. If you accept this logical progression, then you have a powerful argument to infuse technology into every classroom if your goal is to differentiate learning for each student.

The schools that have most successfully implemented differentiated instruction into their culture realize that two critical components are those times in the class when the teacher is able to work with small groups of students and those times when students are learning independently. This independent learning is certainly facilitated by student access to technology resources. The small group portion does not require individual student technology use.

Depending on other independent learning activities your curriculum development has provided, the actual individual use of technology resources may be as little as 33 percent of the class time. With that level of usage, it’s easy to see the value of an investment in one-to-one laptops is lessened significantly.

Leveraging Devices

The alternatives to this requirement of personal computing are varied and deserve your consideration. Full student engagement in the classroom can be accomplished by an Internet-enabled computer, a projection system and a wireless keyboard/mouse that allows the teacher as well as each student to contribute to class discussions from his or her own work areas. Distributed computer stations within the classroom provide a technology area for independent student work. Cart-based laptops provide a mobile, multiuse technology area for independent student work that can be shared among classrooms.

Ultimately, the ability for schools to leverage student-owned devices of many shapes and sizes on their wireless networks will provide the needed technology access for all students.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent for academic and technology services in the Plano Independent School District, 2700 W. 15th St., Plano, TX 75075. E-mail: