At the end of the last century, our greatest matter of contention, besides PC vs. Apple, was whether computers should be in labs or classrooms. My feeling was that, “If both settings offered advantages for learning, then why not both?” But I was only a consultant and was not in the real world.

The solution first appeared to me when Al Rogers, the father of FrEdWriter and FrEdMail, introduced me to Greg Buttler. I knew Greg as the author of FrEdBase, an educational database program for Apple IIs, but I was not aware of his work with schools in Australia where each student had her own laptop computer.

Greg was branching out to America and asked if I would like to visit one of his schools. Within weeks, we were sitting in a middle school classroom in Beaufort, South Carolina. Greg’s model was simple. Each student had a Toshiba laptop running little more than Microsoft Office. Students did most of the work, solving assigned problems and often using the tool of their choice: Word, Excel, Access, or PowerPoint. Greg had developed some astonishingly innovative education hacks for the Office suite.

I noticed the noise level first. It seemed that nearly everyone was talking, yet the classroom door sat wide open. The scene was more like an open office workspace than a classroom. The murmur rose from five conference-style tables, around each of which sat four or five students engaged in the work of learning. Periodically, a student would leave one table and move to another. The teacher was busy, though she wasn’t really teaching.

I had so many questions I didn’t know where to start, so I pulled out a chair and sat with one of the teams. One obvious component of their process was delegation. Each student seemed in charge of some aspect, yet they all contributed to the conversation.

One of our barriers to reaching the educational potential of computers was that most teachers were ill-prepared to use or teach technology. Constantly seeking the secrets of successful teachers, I asked, “If you have a question about Excel, is your teacher able to help you?”

The answer was a snicker. “No!” Another student continued, “If we need help with Excel, we call him,” pointing to a student at another table, “or her,” pointing toward another.

After a bit I moved to the table of one of the Excel masters and asked, “If you need help with your database, do you ask your teacher?”

Their expressions clearly implied, “Are you kidding?” Then, as they pointed to a different table, I was told, “She knows more about Access than anyone in this school.”

Yet I never saw the teacher when she wasn’t sitting and working with students. It occurred to me that these students did not need to be taught how to use technology. They had learned by playing the technology. What they needed from teachers was to learn how to work the technology. Our roles in the classroom were being rewritten as these students became empowered learners instead of complaisant students.

I would learn later that the virtues of personal learning technologies were even more fine-drawn and sublime than what I witnessed in South Carolina.

Greene County is like many economically struggling communities on North Carolina’s inner coastal plain and, like most, better education was key to improving quality of life there. Greene’s school leaders were especially disturbed that in 2002 only 26% of the county’s high school graduates were continuing their education. They decided to address the issue by making their students more active agents in their own education.

Working with county officials, they purchased and provided to each middle and high school student a laptop to use in school and at home. Like in Beaufort, students used their computers as learning tools to access, document, analyze, create, and construct knowledge.

By 2004, the share of graduates who were pursuing further education rose to 54%. In 2007, 84% of the seniors had been accepted to post-secondary institutions by graduation. The next year it was 94%. Instructional strategies and teacher training certainly played a critical role in shifting the learning culture in Greene County’s schools. But I suspect that equally pivotal was the simple dignity of being an empowered learner.

In 2009 Abel Real, a Greene County graduate, told his story before the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives.

You can watch it here: https://youtube.com/watch?v=T3_O39mTsPw