Education

March of the laptops

Is technology overtaking the classroom?

ROBERT SHEPPARD November 2 1998
Education

March of the laptops

Is technology overtaking the classroom?

ROBERT SHEPPARD November 2 1998

March of the laptops

Education

Is technology overtaking the classroom?

With the requisite nonchalance, the sleek black laptop is slipped casually from its nylon case and plopped on the desk. An expert flick and the wafer-thin screen crackles to life. A Bay Street road warrior honing up on a last-minute presentation? No, this is a Grade 7 student at a Quebec City public school just going about the day.

In the space of a very few years, the laptop computer—once corporate Canada’s niftiest status symbol—has moved from the boardroom to the university lecture hall and now, in bits and bytes, to ordinary public school classrooms.

IBM Canada reports that educational demand for its ThinkPads is growing at the rate of 33 per cent a year, and that the machines are moving into the classroom at all levels—beginning with Grade 5 at some schools in the United States.

In this country, Les Compagnonsde-Cartier high school in Quebec City is one of the few public schools experimenting with student-owned laptops. Of the 1,100 students in the school, 128 in Grades 7 and 8 have bought their own $3,000 laptops, part of a program with Compaq and Microsoft Canada that provides discounts and backup technical support. “We’ve got the whole spectrum—slow learners, advanced, kids who don’t like to hand in their homework,” says Mark Miller, an English language arts instructor at Les Compagnons. “It is not just for the cream of the crop.” He reports that students quickly customize the software on their laptops and develop a strong sense of ownership, which is exactly what some educators want: “It’s first nature to them, to mangle an expression. They are not coming from pen and paper to computers. They haven’t even written school papers yet.”

Does computer technology accelerate academic achievement? Miller makes no claim for that, but others do, even though the results are mixed at best. A case in point: a just-released study involving 1,184 Grade 9 students in 14 Alberta and B.C. high schools. The study reported that students using a computer-based math program developed in conjunction with education pub-

lisher ITP Nelson and the four western provinces achieved higher test scores and higher levels of comprehension than those using traditional textbooks and classroom techniques. A closer look reveals significant differences even among the schools using the courseware, suggesting there is more at play here than simply the math CD. What is

more, much of the difference in achievement between the two groups can be accounted for by female students.

“This was quite an excellent program especially for our young ladies,” says math teacher Eddie Mah at Edith Rogers Secondary School in Edmonton. “Girls who might feel uncomfortable in math or intimidated had the opportunity to progress at their own pace.” The program is now being implemented at Grades 7 to 10 in 23 schools in Edmonton and has also been adapted for the Ontario curriculum. Mah feels the course works best as a blended program—part computer learning, part di-

rect instruction in the old-fashioned way. “The computer is their culture. Initially, the problem was to get the kids off the program,” says Mah. “But towards the end of the year, I found it was very taxing on most students: 50 minutes solid on the computer every day is very unrealistic.”

Nelson’s The Learning Equations Mathematics is one of the growing number of curriculum-based courses that are available on discs or via the Internet. Some people see this as the wave of the future, with information technology reconfiguring how we learn. But critics are also starting to become more vocal in their opposition to the computerized classroom. At McMaster University in Hamilton last year, a class project involving a panel of students, faculty and administration were adamant in their opposition to the possibility of mandatory laptop learning on campus, surprising even the instructors. And in a new book, The Child and the Machine: Why Computers May Put our Children’s Education at Risk, Toronto authors Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement write that parents and school administrators are too often stampeded into education technology because of vague fears about falling behind. Also, they argue, computers have more hidden costs than school boards bargain for and may even affect the “inner dialogue” of how children learn. Asks Casement: ‘Why do classrooms have to mirror completely everything that goes on outside of them?”

At the moment, at least 270 U.S. schools have a laptop program for students, some in tough inner-city schools in New York City where proponents say the loss and breakage statistics are not nearly as high as those for IBM executives. Last weekend, Microsoft and Compaq brought educators from Australia (an early convert), the United States and across § Canada to Toronto for a symposium 5 on what it calls Anytime, Anywhere Í Learning—its marketing phrase for I extending the laptop revolution “ more deeply into public schools. Proponents argue that personalized laptops can open doors for shy students or others who blossom by working on their own. But they can also offload the cost of the technology onto families, causing inequities. Even the most bullish proponents, such as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, feel there are limits. “It is still a bit of a stretch to imagine that every child will have a laptop of his or her own,” said Gates in an e-mail interview with Maclean’s. But “the personal computer is the communication and information tool of our day. We can’t withhold access to the tools students will use in the workplace and for lifelong learning.”

ROBERT SHEPPARD