Sunday, May 06, 2007

The coming backlash against one-to-one computing, and what it suggests about educational policy

The following is also posted on my blog at

A New York Times article this week talks about some schools and school districts that have decided to discontinue one-to-one laptop initiatives in which each student is provided their own computer. While there are some questions about the quality of reporting in the article and the real issues involved in at least one district's decision to end giving out laptops (see this blog post), the article offers some cautions to those who believe (with the State of Maine and Apple) that one-to-one initiatives offer the best route to a "major transformation" of K-12 education.

The biggest issues with one-to-one initiatives seem to be the expense, the likelihood that students will use the laptops for nefarious purposes, the need for technical support, the huge professional demands of "transforming" teaching and learning, and the lack of alignment between desired learning outcomes and traditional assessments. A laptop program in one Virginia district cost an additional $1.5 million per year. These costs are sometimes shared with parents, who may resent that their children are using the computers for non-academic purposes. Some laptop programs have suffered from reliability issues with the equipment (see here), and other districts have discovered that the speed of their networks is reduced to a crawl during high-intensity use.

What's more, unless teaching and learning is fundamentally changed to incorporate the ubiquitous presence of technology, the laptops will become extraneous or worse, a distraction:
“The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process,” said one district official quoted in the Times article. For example, if students are allowed to use instant messaging during class, they may pay more attention to classroom gossip and planning for the weekend events than to the academic program. Or, search engines may be used to simply find the answers to questions without any actual thinking about the question itself. Whole class or teacher-centered instruction may not employ the laptops at all.

Perhaps most significantly, ubiquitous availability of laptops--even if built into new approaches to teaching and learning--may not lead to noticable gains in student achievement.
“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said one school board president. Various studies have shown no increase in student grades or scores on standardized achievement tests. This becomes a huge problem for schools seeking to justify expenditures in an era of increased "accountabiility" to standards.

Of course, it can be argued that the gains supported by one-to-one computing are not easily measured through traditional means. So called "21st Century Skills" such as creativity and teamwork are not typically measured on standardized tests. Such tests tend to focus on subject-matter recall, individual performance on predefined tasts, and other "20th Century" skills. (See this article on the potentialo disconnect between NCLB requirements and high use of technology.) A student who is used to using a laptop for regular school work may be disadvantaged when prohibited from using that tool during achievement tests. Student grades may not reflect increased learning because grades are typically given on a "curve" that reflect relative performance in a class rather than absolute achievement relative to a fixed standard.

While evidence of increased student learning in technology-rich environments is available, the situation exemplifies a major problem with school reform generally: the demand to redesign the vehicle while it is still traveling down the road. The need to continue to educate students while "retooling" the educational system means that it's impossible to change everything at once: teaching methods, technologies, school infrastructure and support, administrative demands, parental expectations, student habits, assessment systems, and more. So while "progress" may be made on one or more of these fronts, such progress will result in increased tensions or lowered "outcomes" in another part of the system. In a political environment that demands instant results, it is very difficult to sustain reform efforts that may actually produce lower measured achievement or create widespread confusion or dissatisfaction in the short or medium term.

One of the reasons that the American school system is so difficult to "transform" is that it is really multiple systems, with overlapping and often competing levels of governance and constituencies of stakeholders. Without a "national" vision for education (something more robust and engaging than the completely impossible goal of 100% student proficiency on standardized tests by 2014), and without true leadership on a federal level for educational transformation, we are likely to see a continued cycle of limited visions replaced by demands for "back to basics" approaches for a long time to come. This reality--and the commitment to at least try to break that cycle--may be why Bill Gates and Eli Broad
plan to make education a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. Their contention is that even though "Education is primarily a state and local responsibility..., this is an American problem that affects us all." My own view is that it is time for an amendment to the US constitution making education a federal responsibility, and for our politicians to get behind the depoliticization of educational reform through creation of a robust and independent educational authority at the federal level. (See the Lonang Commentaries for a radically different view on this issue.)

Real systematic reform--perhaps even a national decision to not only redesign the vehicle but perhaps even choosing a new road--is necessary to overcome the cycle of "transformation" and "back to basics" backlash that will otherwise continue to plague the arena of education, and specifically the technology of education.

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