School districts around the country have discovered the versatility that laptop computers can bring to instruction. But when a California school district proposed offering a laptop-only elective not long ago, it quickly got a refresher course in the reality of community resources.

The issue arose in California’s Orange Unified School District, near Los Angeles. At a school board meeting in early May, stakeholders voiced their concern that the McPherson Magnet School’s proposed laptop-only elective class would unfairly exclude poorer students.

The idea was to offer middle school-level English and history classes as electives to students who could supply the laptops integral to the structure of the classes.

“I had to speak up, because those students that could not afford the laptops would not be heard. The parents barely making ends meet would really be burdened by this extra expense,” said Eddie Albright, a father of two McPherson Magnet School students, who objected to the program at the meeting.

“We have to remember in our rush to technology that we can’t leave anyone behind,” he added.

Laptop-only classes have met with success at the district’s Villa Park High School, where Brian Sandberg teachers the eHistory class. “This class gives [students] a head start on all the technology they’ll be using later in life. Kids take notes on their laptops, they use PowerPoint, they design their own web pages, and get their assignments from the class web page, just to name a few applications,” Sandberg said.

But education experts agree there’s a risk in offering laptop-only classes, if the school can’t supply computers for every child.

“On one hand, it’s critically important that teachers tie technology into their classrooms. On the other hand, I’m very sympathetic with the idea of equitable education,” said Margaret Riel, associate director for the University of California at Irvine’s Center for Collaborative Research in Education.

Albright said the Orange Unified school board was quick to see the logic in his argument. The board has agreed to help Albright and other concerned parents find ways to provide the computers necessary for the proposed classes for all students.

“I met for four hours with Pam [Carlson, co-principal at McPherson] to come up with a plan that includes everyone. The school started [its] research trying to find out if there was even a demand for laptop-only classes … by surveying parents and staff to see what they want,” Albright said.

“Once we figure out exactly what everyone wants, we are going to use McPherson as a pilot for this program. It’s ideal since [McPherson] is a magnet school that draws from students in low- and high-income areas,” he added.

Albright said he and Carlson conceived of five options to make laptops available to anyone interested in taking the eEnglish or eHistory class.

First, student may purchase brand-new laptops for between $1,500 and $2,000. Second, students can lease the units for from $40 to $50 per month. Third, students can buy used computers for around $500, and fourth, students have the option to check a computer out from the school. Finally, students can make use of a school Zip drive to transfer information between school and home computers.

Some parents are still concerned about the stigma attached to students who have to buy older computers or check them out from the school. “When you segregate kids, weird things start to happen,” said Albright. “That’s when isolation and frustration start to happen, and kids get violent.”

But Albright said that until every child can obtain identical equipment—or the district can afford to supply every student with identical equipment—other arrangements must be made to make sure students don’t miss out on learning critical information technology skills.

“Social stigma is certainly a concern. This is not perfect this way, but it is a good situation. It’s just not fair to not provide [technology] to anyone because you can’t provide it to everyone,” he said.

Riel agreed, saying, “In math classes, students are required to buy calculators that cost $100. The materials must be made available to those who can’t buy calculators, too. You can’t assure everyone total access to technology, but you can ensure that no one is excluded from a class due to lack of materials.”

“As a parent, I think the public education system has to be a partnership between students, teachers, and parents,” Albright said. Offering a class that only certain students could afford “would be like playing a game of poker and dealing three cards to one person and five cards to the other people. The person holding three cards may as well fold his hand right then.”

Said Riel: “It’s not in the spirit of public education to exclude anyone. You just can’t make a public resource available to a select group.”

Orange Unified School District

McPherson Magnet School

Villa Park High School