No more pencils and wire-bound notebooks in Kirkwood Elementary School teacher Nancy Fotsch’s fifth-grade classroom. These 22 Coralville, Iowa, students are among a select group in the Iowa City, Monticello, and Cedar Rapids school districts taking part in a high-tech research project to evaluate the effectiveness of laptop computers in the classroom.

A team of researchers at the University of Iowa wants to see what impact the laptops have on the students’ learning habits and on how teachers instruct their students.

“We want to see if students become less dependent on the teacher and more independent in how they use the computer,” said Jean Donham, an assistant professor of library and information science at the university. “Generally, we’re looking at [whether] students are initiating their own questions, rather than answering questions by the teacher.”

The impetus for the study came from the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, a regional organization supporting 36 Iowa school districts. The agency chose one rural district, one urban district, and one district from a college town for participation in the study.

What little research on laptop learning already exists is largely based on Microsoft-initiated studies of the company’s “Anytime, Anywhere Learning” program, Donham said.

“What’s come out of these studies so far . . . is a change in students’ writing habits,” she said. The studies suggest that access to computers that students can take anywhere leads to more frequent student writing and, as a result, an improvement in students’ overall writing skills.

“We’re considering that a given and looking at other dimensions of laptop use as well—such as whether the role of the teacher changes and whether kids tend to explore more resources on their own and become inquirers,” Donham said.

The 1.5-pound Hewlett-Packard laptops store a scaled-down version of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs, as well as internet and eMail capabilities.

The laptops don’t change any aspects of the fifth-grade curriculum. But, Fotsch said, students will learn about internet safety, copyright laws, and how to evaluate different sites. She also hopes the laptops will allow them to develop pen pals with Monticello or Cedar Rapids students also involved with the project.

A pair of $150,000 grants from the Iowa Department of Education and Microsoft fund the project. Several businesses also are donating services, such as the wireless communication systems that allow for internet and printer access without the hassle of connecting cords.

Retail value of the laptops is $900 each, but the districts got the equipment at a reduced price of nearly $600. Students get to keep the laptops for three years.

“Next year, the new fifth-grade classes will be followed for two years. I think the use of them will increase over time,” said Bill Dutton, director of instruction for Iowa City schools. “The use becomes more sophisticated as they get older.”

Officials working with the project say fifth grade was chosen as the project’s starting point because it is a time when keyboarding skills are stressed. Also, it allows researchers to see if students change how they learn, especially during the transition from elementary school to junior high.

The study is scheduled to last three years, and the results will be published in educational journals and at educational conferences.

“The types of changes we are interested in take time,” Donham said. “Too often, projects don’t last long enough for educators to see their impact, and our hope is that the duration of this project will increase the depth of understanding about what is happening for these students and teachers.”

University of Iowa

Grant Wood Area Education Agency

Iowa Department of Education

Microsoft Corp.

Hewlett Packard Co.