ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Laptops, Work, and Students

Pamela Livingston

Post submitted by Pamela Livingston, product manager of OnDemand PD at Tutor.com, author, and adjunct professor at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Livingston has spent seventeen years directing education technology programs and helping teachers integrate technology at public, private, and charter schools. Connect with Livingston on her blog, 1-to-1 Learning, and on Twitter @plivings.

Like many of us, I sometimes go to a gathering and meet people for the first time. Here's paraphrased dialogue from one such event.

Person in business attire: "What do you do?"

Me: "I help schools with 1-to-1 laptop programs for students."

Person (laughing): "You mean laptops for KIDS? Really? For KIDS?"

Me: "Yes, that's right. Do you use a computer in your profession?"

Person: "Yes."

Me: "To access this computer, do you walk to another area of the building to sign up for a 40-minute session and then leave the computer for the next person—and hope all your stuff is accessible after and that you remembered to print your work?"

Person (laughing): "No."

Me: "Is that computer rolled to your office on a cart that is shared with other departments and which sometimes has all working computers but sometimes is booked by other departments or has mostly broken computers?"

Person: "No of course not."

Me: "Is that computer also used by two or three others at your job?"

Person: "No, I don't share my computer at all. It's mine all the time. But ... that's because I have WORK to do."

Me: "Exactly! That is why I help schools with 1-to-1 laptop programs for students! One student using one laptop, not shared, available for the work they need to do, with all the resources required and their own documents and projects, to use at school and at home."

There is a dichotomy that exists for some between what "kids" do at school and what is "real work." Yet why isn't what happens in school considered real work by some? As a teacher and as a parent, I know there is much learning to be done for students as they move through kindergarten to 12th grade. Learning math, English, science, social studies, and languages takes time, effort and hard work.

Imagine shadowing a middle school student from class-to-class, being exposed to varied subjects, teachers, textbooks, approaches to instruction, assessments, lessons, and activities. Now imagine doing all this with a pen and notebook or binder to take notes and collect handouts and papers given by each teacher. You also have to keep track of homework and tests and project deadlines. Then at the end of the day you may have sports, perhaps music lessons or time with friends, dinner, and homework. And you have to get enough sleep to be up and ready, with all the papers and materials stuffed into your oversized backpack filled with textbooks for the trip back to school where it all begins again. Which students thrive in this environment? It would seem that the students who can work with paper, are organized, take good notes, pay attention, and can call up the information they learned for the test or project are the ones who succeed.

Reframe this now and imagine moving from class-to-class of different subjects, teachers, and varying assessments, lessons, and activities—but this time you have a laptop or tablet and so does the teacher. Your lessons and projects have an electronic component in that the material can be downloaded and viewed later. You have a better method of taking notes because the laptop or tablet allows you to type or write and there are tools you can use to search or organize your notes. Many of your textbooks are on your laptop and have links to updated websites where you can see information newer than the textbook publish date. There is an electronic learning community for communication with other students and your teachers. You can send your work directly to your teachers and they can comment on your work and send it back. You can view upcoming assignments, projects, tests, and deadlines in all of your classes. And all this is done on your very own, unshared computer, personalized and organized by you, packed with the resources you need, available from home or school or anywhere in between. Which students thrive in this environment? I propose more than in the paper-and-textbook environment because they are able to customize their learning and choose the right tools for work and because the device with their multiple electronic resources as well as their own files is at their fingertips at school or at home.

Of course this means the school has made a teaching and learning shift to ensure that laptops are not just an add-on, viewed as an option when there are "laptop projects" and put away for "real schoolwork." It means that educators have their own laptops and are provided enough time and professional development to develop and hone projects and assignments that maximize the use of laptops in their classrooms. It requires educators and leaders with vision and the drive to help their school or district accomplish this new dynamic; committed to empowering their teachers and students; and providing resources, time, and funding for sustainability. It means rethinking assignments so they are not just about regurgitating information, but also about synthesizing information, solving problems, and creating new ideas. The school technology and the technology staff must be solid in terms of infrastructure and day-to-day support.

I didn't ask that person in business attire about using notebooks, pens, and paper to keep track of ideas and how to organize—there is likely some use of these tools—but notebooks, pens, and paper are not collaborative vehicles. And today's businesses are all about collaboration, joint problem-solving, cross-departmental teams, adherence to goals and deadlines—elements that require electronic tools for sharing, communicating, creating, publishing, and presenting.

It's my opinion that providing a laptop or tablet to children helps them create better work, become more engaged with school, and allows them to learn an important foundation for their future academic and career goals. Thoughtful parents and teachers know their overarching goal is to launch children into life equipped with understanding, skills, and knowledge for the path their students will choose. I feel providing laptops or tablets provides the solid footing into the next phase of learning or work needed by children and is worth the time and investment for their future—and ours.

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