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"The Laptops Are Coming! The Laptops Are Coming!"

By Sarah Heller McFarlane

Home > Archives > Volume 22 No.4 - Summer 2008

I work in an "exurb," a quickly changing suburb in the first ring around Seattle, Wash. Our community represents a cross section of languages, cultures, and socioeconomic classes. Over 20 percent of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch; 2005, the last year that official statistics were released, 18 percent of students listed themselves as Asian, 7 percent as black, 6 percent as Hispanic, 66 percent as white, and 1.4 percent as American Indian/Alaskan Native. As an indication of how quickly our district is changing, in a fall 2006 survey, only 52 percent of students at my high school identified themselves as being European American. As of spring 2007, there were more than 68 languages represented in our English Language Learner (ELL) program.

When my district announced that all secondary students would get laptops to use all the time, all year, due to the passage of a $149.5 million technology levy, I was excited and nervous. While no home internet connection was provided, students could check out a phone-jack dial-up modem. My district was to join a growing trend in education, seeking to "prepare students for the 21st century" and address the digital divide through universal computer access. According to a New York Times story in May 2007, ". . . a study of the nation's 2,500 largest school districts last year . . . found that a quarter of the 1,000 respondents already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011."

When I realized that all of my students were getting laptops, I thought, "Fabulous! I can do amazing things with this." I already had a website. But with the laptops, I could see more ways to incorporate technology into class projects: engage students with more music and visual literacy; "drop" a 1920s and '30s art history PowerPoint onto my server, and every student could access, open, and analyze it; extend class discussions online, allowing quieter, contemplative students to have a voice. The possibilities were endless.

When I considered the coming of the computers, I thought what a difference the laptop-for-every-student program would have made for my former student Mark, a master poet, rapper, deep thinker, and highly ethical young man who moved to our district with few traditional academic skills. He, like many of our students, spent considerable energy and time simply gaining access to technology so that he could then begin the assigned work.

In the past year, I have seen the question of access all but resolved. My student Eduardo, a recent immigrant from Mexico, did not have a computer at home and had virtually no prior computer skills. He now navigates research sites within the University of Washington's Digital Learning Commons, creates PowerPoint presentations, turns in assignments electronically, organizes a central storehouse for his electronic files (and iTunes, of course), and creates numerous other tech-based products (like a MySpace page). Such universal access and technology skill-building has felt like a success of the laptop program, and that is what many of us have spent years fighting for.

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