Hey, Lower Merion: Lose the Laptops

No, spying isn't the problem. It's all the evidence showing school-supplied laptops do nothing to help kids learn

Whenever I read the latest on the Harriton High webcam spying debacle, I imagine I hear a faint sound: an ominous “bong, bong.” I suspect it’s the death knell for the fad of giving out laptops like they’re Mike’n’Ikes in schools.

Even the most committed technoevangelist has to admit that Blake Robbins doesn’t seem to have derived educational benefits from Lower Merion’s laptop initiative. Had Blake or his sister been using their laptops for learning at home, they might have consulted weather.com before the family’s February press conference. Blake might have put on a jacket to stand outside his house, in the snow, in front of the cameras. [SIGNUP]

Or if Blake had really benefited from the New Literacy that’s hoped for in laptop initiatives, he might have figured out how to lock down his Facebook privacy settings before blogger Kashmir Hill at Above the Law noticed Blake’s January 1 status update of “crush a bit. little bit. roll it up. take a hit.” If you’re going to go on national television and claim you were wrongly accused of being involved in illegal drug activity at your high school, it’s best to make sure your public image is squeaky-clean first.

I hear a lot of talk about how technology is supposed to accelerate student learning, and how programs like Harriton’s are supposed to bridge the digital divide. But I can’t help wondering if such high-tech programs are really about learning, or if they’re about the false hope that technology will save American education.

Nobody has yet been able to find evidence that students with laptops get a better education than those without. In the Abell Foundation’s 2008 report on “Laptop for All” programs nationwide, researchers failed to find any conclusive evidence linking personal laptop use to gains in student achievement. One school district in Virginia invested over $50 million in its laptop initiative from 2001 to 2008 and found that the students who used laptops the most frequently had lower scores in Algebra I & II and Writing. Teachers in the program spent more time planning lessons and noted more classroom management issues.

Pennsylvania’s laptop initiative, Classrooms for the Future, has provided students with upwards of 110,000 laptops and other gadgets, including Smartboards, projectors, webcams, and videocameras. The state spent about $126 million (or approximately $362 per pupil) in the first two years of the program (2006-2008) and commissioned an analysis from experts at Penn State University, Bloomsburg University, and the University of Michigan. The findings were not auspicious. Among the Classrooms for the Future (CFF) participants:

• Students’ interest in language arts, math, science, and social studies did not increase
• Teachers worked harder and spent more hours on class prep
• Students did not believe that the quality of their learning experience increased as a result of CFF
• Teachers’ perceptions of teaching as a profession declined
• Students, teachers, and administrators complained of computer failures, network downtime, and printer problems; the ability to deal with these issues varied widely, with some students reporting that computers were commonly down for weeks or more

The researchers concluded that their analysis “did not yield any evidence that the CFF program is having an impact on the academic achievement of Pennsylvania’s students.”

I’m all for technology in the classroom—it makes my life a lot easier as a writing instructor—but I’m not convinced that giving out laptops to students is the best way to fix our broken system of public education. Especially if those laptops are going to students in wealthy districts like Lower Merion, and not to kids whose families can’t afford a single family computer.

We already know what improves the quality of education: kids benefit from better teachers and from support at home. And we know that teachers need smaller classes, smaller schools, decent wages, and technology that makes sense (rather one-size-fits-all “educational solutions”). We also know that lawsuits like Robbins v. Lower Merion make everyone more paranoid—parents, teachers, administrators, and even students. These are human problems, problems of social dysfunction. Using technology to fix social dysfunction doesn’t compute.

MEREDITH BROUSSARD is a journalist in Philadelphia.