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Laptops: Pros and Cons


Q. What are the advantages and disadvantages of giving laptop computers to all students?


Pro: Laptops can lead to better student motivation to learn, teachers say, including more independent research, and better student discussion in classrooms. The No. 1 most important "plus" - students like them!


Con: However, many districts have failed to clearly state measurable goals for the use of laptops to show a distinct improvement in specific student achievement outcomes. They wind up as a toy -- not really a productive learning tool. If all a district can show is "soft" data on how much students (and teachers) like having laptops, rather than "hard" data that shows that fewer students need remediation, more students graduate, standardized test scores are going up, and more graduates do better in college, the district is probably covering up a serious problem with cost-effectiveness.



Pro: It can bridge the "digital divide," the disturbing phenomenon in which students from middle-class and well-off families can afford home computers, but students from households that struggle financially cannot.


Con: It's enabling theft, since school officials know they cannot in good conscience charge a low-income student when that student "loses" a laptop. A whole new black market for "fenced" laptops has developed around school districts which are giving out free laptops to all. If a student whose family income is low enough to qualify for free or subsidized school lunches, the student generally gets a whole new laptop, no questions asked, when he or she reports it stolen. Meanwhile, middle- and upper-class students have to pay the full freight if they "lose" theirs, and with the amount of theft that's going on, that's a likely prospect in some districts.



Pro: Laptops are making student projects better because of the direct access to information, and better presentation techniques.


Con: No, kids with laptops are simply becoming more adept at plagiarizing and creating fancy-looking, but shallow, busy work. Sure, they can produce glitzy-looking products, but they cover up basic deficiencies in academic skills that could have been delivered to children for far less time and cost with traditional teaching tools.



Pro: Laptops are more cost-effective than library books.


Con: No, an across-the-board student laptop program is by far the most expensive learning tool a school district ever buys for its students. A laptop may cost more than $1,000, while a textbook may cost $50. Yet laptops are prone to break and be stolen with far more damage than library books ever sustain. Laptops give students access to all kinds of information, valid AND invalid; but textbooks generally give peer-reviewed, cross-checked information that is more reliable and accurate. The ongoing costs of keeping up a laptops-for-all program in a school district are usually just about as expensive as the first-year, start-up costs when the district bought all the machines in the first place. And all it takes to break one is to step on it, which is easy for a child to do these days, since schools encourage students to use their laptops on the floor, lounging in beanbag chairs, etc., and there are rarely any demands that low-income students replace laptops that they break or lose - which gets expensive in districts in which more than half of the student body is considered "low-income" for purposes of allocating free or subsidized school meals.


Pro: Laptops make it easier to assess student progress.


Con: That gets scary and expensive. What if nationally standardized tests are given via laptops in the future? Then a district would have to provide them for each student, and would have to make sure the network was up and running on test day, or else. Plus, the local district and its teachers would lose control over what questions are on the assessment - which, in turn, loses control over the curriculum that is going to be taught, leading up to that test. Electronic test-taking on a national basis raises the frightening specter of nationalized schools, as the 20th Century Nazis and communists had. We don't want to go that way, even if it's "easier" for teachers and administrators.



Homework: For an idea of the management issues posed by school-based wireless networks, see:


Also see this fact-packed article on the laptop issue from Concerned Women for America:


By Susan Darst Williams Technology 05 2010

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