Some US schools ditch notebook computers

A longish article from the NY Times today talking about how some US schools are dropping notebook computer programs for students, mainly it seems because they haven’t visibly improved results in standardised testing as well (it seems if you read the fine print) for various ‘technical’ reasons’

Such fuzzy logic (what are the tests testing for example?) reminds me of a comment I heard once at a seminar to the effect of “if you’re looking for improved tests results as a result of a notebook computer program, you’re asking the wrong questions’.

I tend to agree. Layering notebook computers on top of existing standardised curriculum, often with stretched and stressed under-prepared teachers is not likely to do much but create angst in teachers who can’t keep up, and students who have to slow down to accommodate them. I’ve taught in schools with notebook programs for 12 years now; would I happily got back to ‘chalk n talk’? No way.

Some excerpts from the article include:

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

In other words, the school hasn’t got its security or its firewalls right yet. And, since the kids are all doing the same tests, some of them are exchanging answers, which they used to do on paper? And what genius with a tiny internet pipe thought it was great scheduling to give the entire school study time at once, and then wonder when the kids actually use that time to research and the internet connection can’t cope?

The classic line here is about the students ‘roaming’ the internet (perhaps the word ‘research’ could have been used here) rather than doing what they should be doing: ‘getting help from the teachers’. Coz the teachers have all the knowledge don’t they? And you need to come to me for help.

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.”

And that education process is, presumably, ‘look at moi!!’

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

I guess you can’t blame teachers who have been placed in situations where judgement about their performance comes down to standardised test score results (look out national curriculum fans!) for neglecting anything other than things that directly link to standardised test score results, but ‘did not fit into lesson plans’ is a giveaway too isnt it? Old lesson plans don’t work any more with new tools. The failure to prepare adequately and resource properly is reflected in the ‘maintenance’ etc etc stuff.

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums.

What gorgeous fodder for language analysis work with my year 11 English class. Consider the language here: ‘philanthropists’ (well-meaning idiots?) ‘quick fix’, ‘flummoxed’ (naturally confused by these new and unrealistic expecations that they’ll actually engage students with contemporary tools) and, my personal favourite, ‘gadgets’. If only we could get ride of these new fangled gadgets we could on with some good ol’ fashioned rote learning!

But in many other classrooms, there was nary a laptop in sight as teachers read from textbooks and scribbled on chalkboards. (ah, how refresshing!) Some teachers said they had felt compelled to teach with laptops in the beginning, but stopped because they found they were spending so much time coping with technical glitches that they were unable to finish their lessons.

Yes, I couldn’t finish my lesson. It was a fine lesson, and it’s worked very well for centuries now. But today, I couldn’t finish it.

There is a semblance of balance towards the end of the article, and perhaps I’ve got to acknowledge that I’m not working with many students struggling with basic literacy and numeracy issues, but even so, it seems it’s the teaching to testing and the planning and resourcing that’s the issue, not the technology

“Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research,” he said. “If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool.

Disappointing stuff from the NY Times, but there you go. That’s what journalism is mostly these days; knock ’em down and chuck a bit of balance in towards the end.

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