Observations, Reflections, & Research of a Laptop Classroom

At Switzerland Point Middle School Marian Campbell, Linda Markhum, and Della Thompson are the laptop classroom grant team members. These three teachers represent the science, social studies, and language art disciplines respectively. We’ll focus on Marian Campbell, who wrote the grant to incorporate technology in her classroom.

I found her students busily at work on their animal projects. According to their assignment sheet, each student had to research a) the animal’s physical description, b) habitat & range, c) diet & feeding, d) growth & reproduction, e) behavior, f) predator, g) related species, and h) interesting facts.

The illustration below is an example of a completed lotus square on the Florida Cooter. The animal project emphasized organizational and research skills, as well as finding images and graphics. The students had to collect data and references from the Internet, books, or CD-Rom encyclopedias so that a website eventually could be created about the short-tailed shrew, bobcat, or black widow spider. Students were working at various stages of the project. They were researching websites, taking notes, collecting images, typing up their rough drafts, printing work, or beginning the development of the website.

Using Inspiration, one student had developed a Food Web of his animal that would soon be placed on his website. Students were using the computer as a productivity tool and there was quite a bit of productivity going on in this 50-minute period.

The students were operating under a “real world†deadline of “tomorrow!†so they could begin instruction on their website the next week. There were three things that were due the next day: 1) the lotus square, 2) their Keeping Track of Reference worksheet, and 3) the rough draft of the information gathered about their animal. If the students finished early s/he could place 10-12 images of their animal in the image folder. The students would begin their website next week using Site Central website development software.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Campbell was busy taking attendance, asking about students’ missing assignments, collecting interims and Instructional Delivery Model contracts, which specify how students had agreed to treat their laptop (see below). As students competed their work and printed out their rough drafts for Mrs. Campbell she checked them and told them to stamp their work with a rubber “Good Work†stamp and turn into the 4th period bin. This teacher also stopped and modeled “a good example of student work†to the class so everyone saw a completed version of what was expected by the due date.

IDM iBook Contract

Dear Student,
Your iBook is an important learning tool and is for educational purposes only. In order for you to use your iBook in class, you must be willing to accept the following responsibilities:

  1. I will treat all equipment (scanner, cameras, etc.) with care at all times.
  2. I will treat my iBook with care by not dropping it, getting it wet, or using it with food or drinks nearby.
  3. I will not attempt to clean or repair my iBook.
  4. I will keep my iBook in my possession during class.
  5. I will only work on the iBook assigned to me.
  6. I will not load software from CD’s off the Internet onto my iBook.
  7. I will not remove or alter programs or files from my iBook.
  8. I will not alter other students’ work.
  9. I understand that any intentional damage done to my iBook will result in serious consequences, including a referral to the dean, and replacement costs.
  10. I will immediately notify the teacher about problems with my iBook.
  11. I will not give any personal information over the Internet.
  12. I will be on task while using the iBook. Off task behavior disrupts my learning and the learning of others and may affect my grade.
  13. I will follow the St. John’s County Acceptable Use Policy when using the Internet.

The students asked a “laptop graduate†for help as needed. Laptop graduates are those with laptop experience who help students out when they have a problem. When I asked one why he enjoys this type of activity, he simply replied, “You learn a lot. You can make Web sites.†Note that he was emphasizing the importance of student construction in learning. He was engaged and enjoying the process of learning as much or more than the content.

Thomas Armstrong explains why students enjoy being part of the creative process:

Essentially, creativity designates the capacity to give birth to new ways of looking at things, the ability to make novel connections between disparate things, and the knack for seeing things that might be missed by the typical way of viewing life (Armstrong, n.d., para. 15).

Mrs. Campbell had found a way to inspire her students’ creativity while also addressing the Sunshine State Standards and science content that her sixth grade students needed to know.

In creative classrooms, teachers are mindful of state and local standards, but they approach required topics with a playful enthusiasm that inspires students to learn. They prompt students to think deeply, pose questions, and pursue "big ideas" from many perspectives. And they allow students to show their understanding of essential curriculum concepts in their own ways (Black, 2003, para. 2).

Another student had competed her assignments midway through the class and was ready to begin her Web site on Bobcats. To my question “Why do you enjoy this laptop experience?†she replied, “ I am learning more about bobcats than I ever knew before. I like getting the pictures. Other students can learn more about bobcats and they can use the information. I never created a web page before. It’s like a new experience.â€

After the observation, Marian Campbell gave background about the laptop program at her school.

A Teacher’s Reflection of the Website Process and the Laptop Program

This is my first year as an “IDM†teacher. IDM, or “Instructional Delivery Model has been in place in our elementary feeder schools for several years with much success. Last spring, the opportunity arose in our county to introduce a middle school model. All middle school teachers were informed of the opportunity and were encouraged to be among the first to pilot this program. I entered, and my school was awarded one of the six-laptop “teamsâ€.

What were the resources you used for this animal project?

“My team consists of three teachers who share twenty-eight laptops, two printers, a scanner, a digital camera, and several software titles. In order to share the equipment, we decided to set up a lab inside our building (since we are in portable classrooms), and take turns using the equipment. We met at the beginning of the year to plan two integrated units, one for each semester. The first unit was a Florida Animal unit. As the science teacher on the team, I began this study by dividing students into small groups, and telling them to discuss with their group what kind of information they would want to share with someone who knew nothing of animals. Students were given large pieces of chart paper to write their ideas. Then, each group was asked to share what they had decided was important to know about animals. These “main ideas†included what an animal looks like, what it eats, where it lives, how it behaves, how it grows, related species, and interesting facts. I then invited the children to use their laptops to find information about their animal. Students collected their notes on a visual concept map (lotus square). They were then required to use these notes to write a report about their animal with all the subheadings for the purpose of creating a web page about their animal. All of the web pages together would be part of a Field Guide to Florida’s Animals.

Once students completed their web research, Mrs. Markum [Social Studies] took students to the IDM lab to work on a geography project. Students were asked to identify the range of their animal on a large map of Florida and color it in. They also created a mini poster about their animal’s habitat and range using draw/paint software. These pages were collected and bound into a book. Finally, Ms. Thompson [Language Arts] gave students an opportunity to use their information to write a variety of poems. This collection of animal poems was also bound into a book. Students really seemed to enjoy this long-term project, and especially stated that they liked being on the computers every day. Though most had little experience using a computer for creating web pages, organizing and creating files, or using search engines to find information, students were willing to “jump right in†and give it their best effort. We found that daily exposure to the laptops greatly increased their confidence and technical abilities.

What were the benefits of a laptop classroom?

Students really seemed to enjoy this long-term project, and especially stated that they liked being on the computers every day. Though most had little experience using a computer for creating web pages, organizing and creating files, or using search engines to find information, they were willing to “jump right in†and give it their best effort. We found that daily exposure to the laptops greatly increased their confidence and technical abilities.

What are some technological and management tips you would offer the novice laptop teacher?

There are a few issues that have made working with the laptops a challenge. Our laptops are wireless; however, by the time of my last class the batteries on some begin to lose charge. Knowing this to be inevitable, I set up tables along the wall with cables ready for immediate connections to electricity. If a student notices that his/her computer is losing charge, they simply leave their seat and move to the “wired†tables.

Another issue is the task of connecting the laptops to the cart where they are charged for the next day. If too many students are allowed to handle this task, there is greater risk of something happening to the cables. I selected responsible students in each class, and taught them how to correctly connect the laptops to the cart. I shared this list with the other teachers on my team. These are the only students who handle this task. It is also a good idea to have student assistants in the lab to help other students. A few of my students are graduates of the elementary IDM program, so they help other students with problems that may arise. They are familiar with most of the software titles we are using this year, and they are competent at trouble-shooting. If they can’t solve the problem, then they seek help from me.

Students are required to stay in their seats and are not allowed to carry their laptops around (with the one exception of hooking up to electricity). I assign “Printer Duty†so that students are not running up to the printer to pick up their work. Instead, it is delivered to their seat by the student helper. This eliminates the possibility of accidentally dropping or knocking a computer off a desk. Students who neglect their laptop, or use it inappropriately, may lose a day to as long as a week without computer privileges. They know I would send them to the library with an alternative assignment. So far, I have not had to remove a student from the laptop lab.

What were the challenges of the laptop classroom?

For the websites about Florida animals, students used AppleWorks to write rough drafts and final copies of their animal reports, Inspiration software to create a food web for the animal, and Site Central for the website itself. Students used Google as the main search engine to find links about the animals. In addition, they were encouraged to use the school library for printed resources, and electronic encyclopedias to get information. Technology is just one of the many tools we use in the laptop class. It does not replace written material, nor is it the only methodology I use with my students. There is still some direct instruction, and there are frequent “check-points†where students are asked to stop and share what they have discovered with the rest of the class. These open discussions/debates lead students to share research, draw conclusions about the topic, and have opportunities to defend their own research. After this time of reflection, students may find that their work needs revision.

With over one hundred students using the same twenty-eight computers, it was necessary for students to learn how to save and organize their files, create folders, and organize favorite Web sites. This turned out to be quite a challenge, since students are often quick to “Save†before they notice where they are saving the work. Teaching students how to find “lost†files is a very important technical skill. Naming files is also a very valuable skill. Since each computer is used by as many as five different students, it is imperative that students learn naming conventions that will safeguard their efforts.

Another important issue for creating the web pages was “borrowing†graphics and pictures from the Web sites of others. Site Central has a good library of graphics, photos, and clip art, and I encouraged students to explore their options here first. Most found it necessary to go to the Internet to locate pictures of their animals. I gave students a template for keeping track of their references, and required that they write the URLs for any web site they used for their project. I discussed the importance of Emailing the host site’s author and getting permission to use the pictures, but for this project, I didn’t require that they do this. Instead, I asked them to list their references on their web page.

To teach new technology skills, I connect my laptop to an LCD projector, and I demonstrate what I want them to do. My goal, eventually, is to provide written tutorials for each software title. When we first started out with the laptops, much time was required to teach the technology skill needed to complete the project, and I felt frustrated about not being able to cover the science standards I was required to cover.

What did you wish you knew before you started teaching in a laptop classroom?

I was not able to predict the amount of time needed to teach students basic computer skills. Even with daily exposure, children “forget†how to carry out certain tasks and need reminders. Occasionally, I feel more like a technology teacher than a science teacher because I am spending so much of the period solving technical problems. However, I am simultaneously modeling problem-solving, collaboration, cooperation, and patience! My students have been quick to learn how to fix the problem themselves to some degree, although for serious technical issues there is an on-campus technical expert. To introduce new software, I connect my laptop to an LCD projector, and demonstrate what I want them to do. Students are immediately given time to practice using that software. Children are natural explorers and, given the opportunity, will learn anything they need to know to solve a problem or complete a task. Having said this, it is important to remember that they are children, and they still need guidelines and a lot of encouragement. Most importantly, they need to know what is expected of them. Setting up a rubric for performance ahead of time is very beneficial, and it is a good idea to allow students input into this process. It makes learning more relevant, and more their own.

Has the school made a commitment to keeping the laptops running with up-to-date programming?

My county and my school are committed to providing cutting-edge technology for the students and teachers. They recognize, however, that it is not the technology that will enhance student learning and ultimately change the methodology that teachers use in their classrooms. Instead, focus is on what we want students to know, and we simply use all the tools available to us to accomplish the greatest learning. Our laptop teams meet every other week to share best practices, learn new skills, and share concerns about the program.

Learning with laptops gives my students the opportunity to construct their own meaning, explore individual paths to knowledge, and provides vast amounts of information at their fingertips. With laptops and Internet access, students can visit a museum anywhere in the world, perform a virtual dissection, exchange data with students from anywhere in the world, and create multimedia presentations for a world audience. The possibilities for learning are endless, exciting, and exhausting! Though my first year has been a little rough, I am glad to be a part of this effort to empower young learners. Many of the issues surrounding the use of laptops with children will never go away. As with any new teaching model, and especially models that involve highly technical tools, there are bound to be bumps in the road. I am not absolutely certain that student achievement is higher as a result of my laptop model, but I plan to examine this. One of the ways I will do this is compare students’ standardized test scores with last year’s scores. I hope to see that the types of activities I ask students to do on their laptops enhances their learning by making them better readers, writers, and problem-solvers. I do know that my students love using the laptops. At the end of every quarter, I ask them to write their reflections about learning. Most of them have cited the laptop program as one of the “good†things about school.

We are still very much in the infancy stage of laptop learning at our school. We have a long way to go. Since each middle school team was allowed to define its own model of implementation, there will be opportunities at the close of the school year to examine models that were effective and change models that were less effective. We will meet this summer to discuss goals for next year and will receive more training on integrating learning using technology. Our goal is this: To meet the needs of a diverse population of learners and to prepare them for life in the twenty-first century. Technology must have a role in this very worthwhile endeavor.

What Research says about Laptop Use in the Classroom

Maine was the first state to provide laptops to all 7th and 8th grade public school students. The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, or MLTI sought “to eliminate the digital divide by providing a laptop to each and every 7th and 8th grade student and teacher (MLTI, 2002, para.1). Laptop classrooms are not a new idea, but still considered a novelty in schools. According to The Technology in Education Survey “43 percent of schools have laptops. For all public schools, the average is 22 laptops per school†(Branigan, 2003, para.16).

In an executive summary of the second year of a three-year study, Rockman, et al, (1998) reported that laptop use in the classroom had an impact on teaching and learning.

In its third year of the study entitled Research Finds Laptop Learning Yields Better Students and Better Teachers Through Anytime, Anywhere Access, Rockman, Et Al. reported that there were two key elements impacting student learning and two impacting teaching while using laptops in the classroom.

The Impact on Student Learning:

  1. Access to technology improves students' writing and encourages collaboration among students.
  2. Students who use laptops are more involved in their schoolwork. The Impact on Teaching:
  3. Teachers who use laptops use a more constructivist approach to teaching.
  4. Teachers who use laptops feel more empowered in their classrooms (Rockman, et al, 2000, para. 5-8).

Marian Campbell found the following citation a great comparison between the teaching practices used in the laptop and non-laptop classroom.

In a measure of more traditional teaching, non-laptop teachers report they employ direct instruction (a traditional practice defined on our questionnaire as the sequence "review, teach, guided practice, individual practice") almost every day, and that this has not changed at all over the last three years. In contrast, Laptop teachers have moved from employing direct instruction almost every day to about once a week in the current year (Rockman et al. ,n.d., p. V).

In Henrico County, Virginia, universal access to wireless laptops was given to every student and teacher in the past 3 years. Dr. Mark Edwards is the superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia. Edwards (2004) explained the benefits of an integrated middle–high school immersion laptop program.

  1. Technology can build badly–needed connections between home and school.
  2. Providing every student with a laptop bridges the digital divide for students and parents.
  3. Students have shown large gains in pass rates of 96-97% in English & World History in Virginia’s Standards of Learning statewide testing (para.10-12) .

Edwards (2004) reiterated why laptops were considered the reason for the vast improvement in student scores.

Our performance on the SOLs shows how technology can reinforce a commitment to rigorous content and high standards. At the same time, I believe our laptop program creates new possibilities for every student that go beyond what even the best test can measure. The one-on-one opportunity this program creates can become a defining feature of 21st-century schools (para. 22).

While the individual educator, states, districts, and counties attempt to find ways to fund laptop programs, the early evidence through research supports the use of one to one computing that laptops provide. It will be interesting to see if the higher student achievement and the empowerment of students as engaged learners bridges not only the digital divide, but the academic and socioeconomic divide that portability seems to promise. If laptop portability and access can overcome the digital divide, then perhaps Palms will become the next tool in sync to personalize and empower learning even further.

Email: Jerry Woodbridge


Armstrong, T. Awakening Genius. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2004.

Black, S. The creative classroom Retrieved Jan. 4, 2004.

Branigan. C. Schools that fail AYP are below average in tech use. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2004.

Edwards, M.A. Fulfilling the promise of ed tech: Laptops spur learning. Retrieved Feb. 3, 2004.

Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2004.

Rockman, Et Al. Powerful tools for schooling. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2004.

Rockman, Et Al. Research Finds Laptop Learning Yields Better Students and Better Teachers Through Anytime, Anywhere Access. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2004.

Rockman, Et Al. A More Complex Picture: Laptop Use and Impact in the Context of Changing Home and School Access. Retrieved Jan. 19, 2004.