Laptops and Learning (1998)

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Laptops and Learning

Can laptop computers put the “C” (for constructionism) in Learning?
Published in the October 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator

© 1998 – Gary S. Stager

“…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon (1971)

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia embarked on a still unparalleled learning adventure. Eighteen years after Solomon and Papert’s prediction this school made a commitment to personal computing and constructionism. The unifying principle was that every child in the school (from grades 5-12) would own a personal laptop computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum with a belief that their ideas and work were being stored and manipulated on their own personal computer. Ownership of the laptop computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. The personal computer is a vehicle for building something tangible outside of your head – one of the tenets of constructionism. By 1994, 2,000 MLC teachers and students had a personal laptop computer. This school, like most serious workplaces now has a computer ration of more than one computer per worker (teacher & student). Today, approximately 50,000 Australian school children have their own laptop. More and more American schools are embracing laptops as well.

Personal Computing – Personal Learning

Until recently, the notion of the PC and personal computing has escaped schools. Computer labs, special furniture and computer literacy curricula have been designed to make efficient use of scarce public resources. The potential benefits of using a word processor to write, edit and publish are rarely realized when access to the computer is limited and artificially scheduled. Laptops provide a personal space for creating, exploring, and collecting one’s own ideas, work, and knowledge in a more fluid manner. Pioneering schools like MLC adopted laptops for the following reasons:

The laptop is flexible, portable, personal and powerful
Students and teachers may use the computer whenever and wherever they need to. The laptop is a personal laboratory for intellectual exploration and creative expression. Learning extends beyond the walls and hours of the school.

The laptop helps to professionalize teachers
Teachers equipped with professional tools view themselves more professionally. Computers are much more likely to be integrated into classroom practice when every student has one.

Provocative models of learning will emerge
Teachers need to be reacquainted with the art of learning before they are able to create rich supportive learning environments for their students. The computer allows different ways of thinking, knowing and expressing ones own ideas to emerge. The continuous collection of learning stories serves as a catalyst for rethinking the nature of teaching and learning.

Gets schools out of the computer business
Laptops are a cost-effective alternative to building computer labs, buying special furniture and installing costly wiring. Students keep laptops for an average of three years, a turnover rate rarely achieved by schools. Built-in modems provide students with net access outside of school. The school can focus resources on projection devices, high-quality peripherals and professional development.

Since my work with the world’s first two “laptop schools” in 1990, I’ve helped dozens of similar schools (public and private) around the world make sense of teaching and learning in environments with ubiquitous computing. My own experience and research by others has observed the following outcomes for students and teachers.

Learner Outcomes

  • Students take enormous pride in their work.
  • Individual and group creativity flourishes.
  • Multiple intelligences and ways of knowing are in ample evidence.
  • Connections between subject areas become routine.
  • Learning is more social.
  • Work is more authentic, personal & often transcends the assignment.
  • Social interactions tend to me more work-related.
  • Students become more naturally collaborative and less competitive.
  • Students develop complex cooperative learning strategies.
  • Kids gain benefit from learning alongside of teachers.
  • Learning does not end when the bell rings or even when the assignment is due.

Teacher Outcomes

  • The school’s commitment to laptops convinces teachers that computers are not a fad. Every teacher is responsible for use.
  • Teachers reacquaint themselves with the joy and challenge of learning something new.
  • Teachers experience new ways of thinking, learning and expressing one’s knowledge.
  • Teachers become more collaborative with colleagues and students.
  • Authentic opportunities to learn with/from students emerge.
  • Sense of professionalism and self-esteem are elevated.
  • Thoughtful discussions about the nature of learning and the purpose of school become routine and sometimes passionate.
  • Teachers have ability to collaborate with teachers around the world.
  • New scheduling, curriculum and assessment structures emerge.

 

“I believe that every American child ought to be living in the 21st century… This is why I like laptops – you can take them home. I m not very impressed with computers that schools have chained to desks. I m very impressed when kids have their own computers because they are liberated from a failed bureaucracy …

You can’t do any single thing and solve the problem. You have to change the incentives; you’ve got to restructure the interface between human beings. If you start redesigning a learning system rather than an educational bureaucracy, if you have incentives for kids to learn, and if you have 24-hour-a-day, 7-day a week free standing opportunities for learning, you’re going to make a bigger breakthrough than the current bureaucracy. The current bureaucracy is a dying institution.” – U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (Wired Magazine, August 1995)

When Seymour Papert and Newt Gingrich are on the same side of an issue, it is hard to imagine an opposing view. The fact that computers are smaller, cheaper and more powerful has had a tremendous impact on society. Soon that impact will be realized by schools. Laptop schools are clearly on the right side of history and will benefit from the experience of being ahead of trend.

Much has been said recently about the virtues of anytime anywhere learning. Laptops certainly can deliver on that promise. Integrated productivity packages may be used to write, manipulate data and publish across the curriculum. However, the power of personal computing as a potential force for learning and as a catalyst for school reform transcends the traditional view of using computers to “do work.” I encourage school leaders considering an investment in laptops to dream big dreams and conceive of ways that universal computing can help realize new opportunities for intellectual development and creative expression.

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