Laptops for All

As president of the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, Bruce Dixon works with people from schools, industry, and academia to build a vision of a future in which every child has a laptop. School CIO talked to Dixon about why laptops are essential, how they will be used, and what this means for CIOs.

Q. Why should all children have laptops?
A. Getting every kid a laptop is just putting them on the bench; now we have to start playing the game. A child in a school with a six-to-one student-to-computer ratio will get at most two to three hours of access per week. If you had to do your job in two to three hours, you’d find it rather disabling. Giving every child a laptop is the target, but it is a means to an end. We’re focused on what happens next.

Q. So, what happens next?
A. If what we’re doing with computers is the same as what we did without them, then it’s not particularly useful. The next step is significantly improving the opportunities for learning by having a laptop in every child’s hands. For instance, what are the innovative ways that I can teach difficult mathematical concepts when every child has a laptop? Or, what if every child could go online and access original historical documents? Is it going to help them want to find out more? The answer is yes.

Q. How can school districts manage the cost of providing laptops and Internet access?
A. The premise of your question is that cost is a key component of the decision. It’s an important question, but most people use it as an excuse. There are many thousands of schools across North America that could easily afford to give every child a laptop and the accompanying learning experiences. Each school has its own identity, culture, and policies, and they can make the best decision on how to finance it. Of course, there are infrastructure, servicing, insurance, software, and professional development costs. But let’s get the machine, and let everything else fall into place. What we require now is commitment, vision, and leadership.

Q. How would the roles of CIOs and technology staff change after the implementation of your program?
A. The move to one-to-one computing will give CIOs status that every school should aspire to. This has been a problem for CIOs, because computing in many schools today doesn’t touch all the students. It’s casual or incidental use, for some akin to using sport facilities. But in a one to one school, students use technology every day of the year. Therefore, there will be a lot more attention paid to the people in technology support roles.

Q. Why laptops?
A. If you compromise the power of the device, you compromise what you can do with it. People say to me, “I want to buy a laptop for my child, but I don’t want to spend too much money.” I tell them, “Frankly, they’ll need a more powerful computer than you, because they’ll use it more creatively than you ever will. Kids do simulations, blogging, and complex spreadsheet work. They demand a lot more computing power than you expect.” It’s not just about being able to hit a keyboard and get a word out; it’s about being able to explore powerful ideas.

Q. What do you think of Nicholas Negroponte's $100 laptop initiative?
A. It’s great. Once people hear about it, they believe that every child will have a laptop. Then they find out that we’re doing it for kids in Brazil and Namibia and everyone says, what about America? They realize it’s about time for every kid in America to have a laptop. But the $100 laptop isn’t meant for American kids. If it were $100, I’d sell it for $500 and donate $400 to undeveloped countries. If kids in Thailand get it for $100, then relatively the cost for American kids should be very cheap, and it is cheap enough now. Price is not the barrier. The barrier is people’s failure to believe that it should happen.

Q. What are some obstacles to realizing the vision?
A. If you ask people how they measure the success of one-to-one programs, sadly, most use short-term, superficial measures, such as an increase in test scores. Let’s be serious about how we’re going to measure significant improvement in opportunities for learning. We’ve got to be a lot more critical about what’s happening once the laptops get into kids’ hands. Just some large number of laptops is not enough. We’ve got a long way to go.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.

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