Getting Results With Laptops

Despite a growing number of mobile computing initiatives across the country, including dramatic statewide adoptions in Maine and Michigan, laptop programs continue to breed controversy. For instance, critics of Maine's laptop program point to a $28 million per year price tag that hasn't yet yielded higher scores on the state's educational assessment test. Meanwhile, in suburban Andover, Mass., and other communities, one-to-one computing programs are being dropped or delayed due to lack of sustainable funding.

Given this backdrop of continuing debate, we decided to examine laptop programs from two perspectives. First, what does the most current research say about their impact on teaching and learning? For this angle we tapped into the expertise of Saul Rockman, who's conducted numerous studies of K-12 mobile computing environments, most recently in Indiana (see "A Study in Learning" below). We also wanted to go a step further and offer practical advice on how to successfully structure a laptop program to get the most return on investment. After a visit to East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn., we found the perfect in-the-trenches expert, Domenic Grignano, who rolled out a wireless laptop program there two years ago (see "12 Tips for Launching a Wireless Laptop Program"). Together, Rockman and Grignano paint an impressive—and realistic—picture of the potential of laptop programs.

A Study in Learning

What does the latest research on mobile computing tell us about teachers, students-and testing?

By Saul Rockman

At least one of every six U.S. districts now has some form of laptop program in one or more schools, encouraged by both the falling prices of computers and the positive public perception generated by promoting such an initiative. For the past decade I've led a research group that's focused on the study of ubiquitous laptop computing, starting with Microsoft and Toshiba's Anytime, Anywhere Learning initiative, where we looked at approximately 50 schools and districts around the country. Among the studies we're currently conducting is Tech-Know-Build, a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant project that provides laptops and wireless Internet access to some 3,000 students and 175 teachers in Indianapolis and Crawfordsville, Ind.

Perhaps not surprisingly, recent findings from the four-year investigation of the Tech-Know-Build project confirm and emphasize existing research showing that teaching and learning change in consistent and reliable ways when laptops are introduced into the school environment. We see more project-based learning, increased student motivation and experimentation, and higher rates of peer mentoring. Some of these shifts can be tied to an overall lower student to computer ratio. But we've found that with laptops, specifically, the behaviors appear earlier and are more pronounced, especially among special education and ELL students.

Here, a look at some key points that have surfaced over the course of the Indiana project, and those preceding it, based on extensive quantitative and qualitative research that included classroom observations, interviews, focus groups, and surveys.

Learning environments are transformed. Educators involved in laptop programs overwhelmingly promote collaborative learning and at the same time provide individualized instruction. This often means students and teachers move around more. Instead of staying put to do seatwork, students gather together to work on projects, which frees teachers to roam about the room helping those who have problems or need remediation. In addition, learning in laptop classrooms is often more self-directed: the majority of Tech-Know-Build teachers responding to a spring 2004 survey say they now let students decide what materials and resources to use in their projects.

Assessment techniques change. Teachers in laptop classrooms are more willing to assign presentations and multimedia products to students, and score them using customized, project-driven rubrics and even self-assessments. In our Indiana study, for example, more authentic assessment has grown out of a shift toward problem-based learning—where students examine complex local issues with multiple solution options (to see sample units, visit There's a new emphasis on process, and not simply assessment, when students make presentations on the results of their studies to business and community leaders as well as classmates and teachers.

Teachers look to a variety of sources for training. Professional development has shifted from one-time, all-purpose training to a model tailored to teachers' individual content area and pedagogical needs offered on an as-needed basis. It also targets specific technology skills and is provided by teachers, university, business partners- and even students themselves.

Mastery is no longer solely the province of technology gurus. In addition to consulting with students, laptop teachers tend to seek and offer advice to each other across grade levels and content areas, reducing the need to rely on training from outside sources. Again, this may be a just-in-time tip for enriching a lesson or a strategy to make optimum use of the laptops. In a recent survey we conducted where laptop teachers rated the effectiveness of training and professional development opportunities, building-level coaching received significantly higher ratings than more formal training sessions.

Students are highly engaged. Like teachers, students also show improved technology skills and sophistication. But this, too, varies, with some students taking to certain specialized applications such as movie making, and others using the tools as a functional, almost transparent element in their schoolwork. In Indianapolis and Crawfordsville, teachers report, anecdotally, that students have greater engagement in their assigned work, fewer behavioral referrals, and higher attendance—positive trends that other research has substantiated. In their study of the Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, Maine, for instance, the Mitchell Institute found daily student attendance improved from 91 percent to over 98 percent since the laptop program began last year. And significantly, 48 percent of parents reported their children are more motivated now that they work with laptops. (The full report is available at

Productivity increases. Students develop better organizational skills because they now need them to keep track of what's on their computer and to accomplish complex project work in a timely manner. Over half of the Tech-Know-Build teachers report the laptops have helped students organize their work. What's more, they see these changes happening very early on—soon after the sixth-graders entering middle school first get their laptops. Teachers also report that some students, on their own, use a calendar program to set up due dates and daily reminders.

Attitudes toward writing improve. In a recent survey measuring students' attitudes about writing, 76 percent of students said they enjoy writing more on the laptops than on paper; 80 percent indicated the laptops make it easier to rewrite and revise their writing; and 73 percent said they earn better grades for laptop work. The data demonstrate shifts in not only students' writing attitudes, but also in their practices—changes we've also observed in language arts teachers' writing instruction strategies, and in the attitudes and practices of other content area teachers.

OK, But What about Test Scores?

Unfortunately, one desired outcome of laptop use seems to remain stubbornly beyond the efforts of researchers to capture it: improvement on standardized achievement tests. The current Holy Grail of any change in educational practice seems to be producing a corresponding improvement in student performance on these tests. There are isolated examples of test score increases but they are slippery: neither consistent nor necessarily tied to the use of computers. But researchers may soon be able to document such a correspondence in connection with writing, because teachers and students in laptop programs are quick to see the benefits of word processing, and writing performance is actually tested on a statewide basis.

One explanation of the lack of a connection between computers and achievement may lie in the nature of instructional tasks. Much of what teachers are asking students to do is not closely linked to what's assessed on the standardized tests used today. Searching for information on the Internet, organizing it, writing and making presentations, communicating with others, and collaborating in producing a product—all are skills desirable in the world of work but difficult to measure in cost-efficient ways.

So it follows that the majority of the substantive, positive changes we've found are in the acquisition of 21st century skills that will allow students to thrive in the digital workplace. Many of the results we've recorded—such as increased engagement, motivation, self-direction, and technology proficiency-are enough to provide administrators, especially those that work in at-risk environments, with enough of a solid rationale to commit a hefty investment. Beyond that, deeper, broader changes to the traditional classroom learning model, such as the shift to more student-centered, project—based pedagogy, suggest that a laptop program can supply the needed impetus to alter the status quo and get the entire community thinking about the key elements to successful school reform.

Saul Rockman is president of Rockman Et Al, an independent research and consulting firm specializing in technology and learning.

To see two case studies of the Tech-Know-Build program in action, visit

A Day in the Laptop Life

Technology & Learning took a visit to Town School for Boys, a K-8 independent day school in San Francisco, to see their five-year-old laptop program in action.

Fifth-grade students fire up their laptops to research famous artists in history. The boys, whose families are required to purchase wireless laptops for them in the fall of fifth grade, know to bring their computers to class when there's an "X" next to their teacher's name on the whiteboard in the hall.

Town School employs a demerit system. If a student is discovered instant messaging during class, for instance, he gets one strike. Leaving a laptop unattended in the hall or outside earns him three strikes-although according to technology director Micaela Doyle, "They guard them with their lives." It takes four strikes to be put on work detail.

Humanities teacher Cate Brennan gives her fifth-graders the choice of writing short-response essays either in long hand or as an e-mail. If they choose the latter method, the messages go directly to a filtered folder in her inbox (students must put "class 5B" in the subject line). After reading and assessing their work, Brennan simply hits "reply" and sends her comments back electronically.

Almost every student at Town personalizes his laptop with an array of stickers—from favorite sports teams to music groups-along with the screen saver of his choice. The school firmly believes "the sense of personal ownership and direct responsibility for a computer engages a student's sense of responsibility and interest in his machine and learning."

To learn more about Town's technology program, visit

Amy Poftak

12 Tips for Launching a Wireless Laptop Program

The technology director for East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn., a federal government test site for laptop learning, shares his secrets to a successful implementation.

By Domenic Grignano

  1. Build a Wireless FoundationThe first option for creating a wireless infrastructure is to mount access points on portable laptop carts. The second, and better, choice is to strategically place access points throughout the entire school building. In addition to making it possible for special education students who are routinely pulled out of their regular classrooms to use their computers, providing 100 percent wireless coverage also ensures maximum flexibility in emergency situations—when the heating goes down in a classroom, for instance, and kids have to relocate to the library or cafeteria.
  2. Choosing a LaptopPlease do not choose the cheapest model out there because of budget constraints! This can backfire. The following are essential technical requirements: brand name computer with a 3-year warranty; 512MB; built-in wireless cards; durable construction (magnesium alloy case); long battery life; clear and visible screen from all angles; and lightweight for ease of use.
  3. The Correct CartA sturdy and durable cart for housing your laptops is crucial. Another way to think about it: with laptops costing $1,100 to $2,000 each, one cart protects over $30,000 worth of school assets. With that in mind, the model you choose should offer secure construction with strongest possible locks, built-in charging capabilities with surge suppressor, fully welded construction, long power cords, and reconfigurable module shelves.
  4. Network InfrastructureYour laptops will work at peak performance if these conditions are met: proper CAT 5 wiring; fiber optic backbone; quality network switches and access points; high-speed broadband connection; and reliable and efficient servers.
  5. Foolproof ConfigurationHere are four simple steps for avoiding configuration glitches: (1) before you give out any laptops decide on all the curriculum products and other software you'll be using during the year and make one perfect copy; (2) create a clone of this perfect image by copying to CDs for installation; (3) install the image to all other laptops for deployment or when a laptop fails; and (4) install desktop security software on all laptops to prevent hacking.
  6. Additional Security MeasuresAssign individual usernames and passwords to students and staff members, as opposed to a generic one. Then configure a personal drive (P drive) for each user so they can save work to the school's server instead of relying on a hard, floppy, or thumb drive. Finally, be sure to label all your laptops and cart shelves using an automatic labeler with self-adhesive tape. This eliminates confusion and provides an added measure of accountability.
  7. Storing and ChargingStoring your laptops in a safe and secure cart (see tip #3) will prevent theft. It's imperative that students are trained to return their laptop to the same marked shelf every day and be responsible for plugging them in the charger.
  8. Professional DevelopmentProvide staff with their laptops first and train them months in advance of student deployment. At East Rock, for example, the staff had the summer to play with the laptops and then received two months of professional development. Continual training—weekly or monthly sessions with the technology facilitator—should be scheduled throughout the year. A useful approach is to meet with small groups of laptop teachers for two-hour sessions within the school day or after school.
  9. Parent OrientationSend out a letter informing all parents that their child will be using a laptop and a mandatory meeting will take place. At the meeting, give parents a taste for what the laptops will be used for by presenting sample lessons, homework assignments, and Web sites. Provide them with the Acceptable Use Policy and have them sign a permission form allowing their child to participate in the program.
  10. Student DeploymentGive the laptops to students on a gradual basis (e.g., one grade level every two weeks). Training should include a big-picture discussion about how the technology actually works, rules and regulations such as how to carry the laptop and acceptable uses, and instruction on basic keyboarding and networking skills.
  11. Staff Buy-InTeachers will be convinced laptops are useful and effective in the classroom if there's ongoing professional development; the technology facilitator is available on an as-needed basis during the day; and broken or malfunctioning laptops are fixed within a few days (having five loaners available for every 100 laptops deployed is recommended).
  12. The Biggest Secret of AllThe technology coordinator needs to model 21st century lessons to teachers and show them how to transform traditional teaching methods by substituting the use of laptop instruction—for example, integrating reading, writing, social studies, and technology literacy skills into one one-hour lesson. In short, don't make technology an add-on to teachers' already burdened load of instructional tasks! To see sample lessons, visit

Domenic A. Grignano is the technology facilitator and systems engineer at East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn.

Additional information on East Rock's laptop program can be found at, including a full-length article, "Creating a Successful Laptop Program," first published in the Classroom Connect Newsletter.

Real World East Rock

What happens when you pair wireless laptops with inner-city elementary students? Here, some first-hand observations.

By Amy Poftak

Domenic Grignano is the man with the plan. Chatty, effervescent, and prone to eating only Power Bars for lunch, Grignano, known to his students as "Mr. G," is the hustle behind the technology program at East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn. In 2001, the K-8 school was chosen to be part of a Department of Education study to evaluate the impact of laptops on student achievement. A year later East Rock's third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade classes received 220 wireless-networked HP notebooks to use at school.

"It's like night and day," sums up Grignano about life before and after the program, which also supplied teachers with their own laptops, PLATO Learning's Orion assessment software, and professional development. I took a springtime visit to the school to investigate the transformation he was talking about. One of my first stops was the library, where fifth graders were answering Connecticut Mastery Test-style vocabulary questions downloaded from Orion. Later, I made my way to a fourth-grade classroom. Students were gathered around selected laptops watching a "Biomes of the World" video clip downloaded from the Net. Down the hall, students charted weather temperatures on Excel spreadsheets while their teacher walked from table to table to troubleshoot.

Despite the wide range of abilities—several students were part of an inclusion program, including one who was hearing impaired and required an interpreter—all appeared to be on task (with one notable exception, a young man who had lost his computer privileges for the day and was grudgingly working from a book). "Kids who were totally off the wall are more focused. Classroom management has improved tremendously," says Grignano. Others I talked to concurred with this assessment. "With the laptops we don't hear any grumbling about writing," said fourth-grade teacher Henrietta Szymolon. "They can also create a beautiful finished product, which is especially important for kids who don't have fine motor skills." There's research bolstering these comments: An impact study commissioned by the government found positive gains in writing, technology literacy, and an increased emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.

The pressing question from many quarters, of course, is whether the program has yielded improved test scores. East Rock's Connecticut Mastery Test scores, which arrived this June amid a cloud of controversy—the state asked CTB/McGraw-Hill to rescore the test twice due to troubling inconsistencies—produced modest results. "It wasn't a major shift but there were small gains," says Grignano, who added such assessments aren't designed to test technology proficiency and other critical skills students are acquiring through the program.

By any measure, East Rock has proved what can happen when you have a clear vision embraced by administrators, teachers, students, and parents. But there's another major force driving the success. Toward the end of my visit I asked computer lab assistant Peggy Benevento what things would be like if Grignano wasn't there. Her reply: "Not a pretty story." Ultimately, as with so many other endeavors in education, it comes down to leadership.

Amy Poftak is executive editor of Technology & Learning.

Learn More About Laptops

By Susan McLester

For research, tips, and advice about choosing laptops and implementing laptop programs, see the resources below archived at


From Educators' Outlook

  • Observations, Reflections, & Research of a Laptop Classroom
    By Marian Campbell & Jerry Woodbridge
    Early research supports the use of one-to-one computing. This study found that daily use of laptops greatly increased student confidence and technical abilities and improved their learning.

From T&L magazine

  • Networking Without Wires
    By Judy Salpeter and Jerry Crystal
    K-12 schools like wireless LANs, which permit students and teachers to travel on and off campus with Internet-equipped wireless laptops or roll mobile computer carts from one classroom to another to serve as labs. A number of Web resources are available to help education technology leaders in their quest to keep up with the rapidly changing world of 802.11.

From the IT Guy

  • Laptop Durability
    By Wesley Fryer
    Are laptops tough enough for school use?
  • Laptop Initiatives
    By Wesley Fryer
    How are a variety of districts implementing their laptop programs?

From The Leaders' Edge

  • Multi-Tasking In the Classroom
    By Susan Brooks-Young
    At one laptop school, teachers are complaining that students surf the Web during instruction. Some even want to require kids to keep their laptop covers closed during lectures, but doesn't that defeat the purpose of having the laptops for taking notes and so forth? Here, advice from an expert in the field.