IT Happens: Laptops for teachers can liberate learning

That teachers should be given access to reliable, powerful technology if they are expected to integrate technology into their curricula is a no-brainer to most people. What is not immediately obvious, however, is how they should be provided with such technology.

Many schools see themselves as successful in this effort when they have given their teachers access to the school’s computer lab. Others feel that a teacher workstation in each classroom is adequate. In most cases, however, these solutions fall short of meaningful access to technology. If schools truly want to provide teachers with the tools necessary to use technology meaningfully in their classes, they ought to consider a faculty laptop program.

Teachers who are new to technology are unlikely to try learning new skills in their 45-minute free period in a computer lab filled with students who know more about technology than they do. Similarly, a classroom-based desktop PC usually doesn’t fit into a teacher’s tightly packed day. Nor does it allow a novice to make mistakes without the fear of embarrassment.

Laptop computers, on the other hand, give teachers the ability to learn at their own pace when they have free time, whether that happens to be on the weekend or before going to bed. Teachers also will have the opportunity to experiment privately or with people they trust.

Teachers in many secondary schools have the added challenge of having to “float” from classroom to classroom. This creates headaches for them when a program or file on the hard drive of one machine doesn’t exist on a machine in another classroom. Novice users who haven’t mastered network file storage can get frustrated quickly when they can’t pull up the document they saved on the hard drive in the room they were teaching in last period.

Similarly, since a given teacher might not be the only person teaching in a particular classroom, the teacher has no control over what happens to that machine when she’s outside the room. As any network administrator knows, public access machines invariably encounter more problems than machines that are “owned” by someone.

Laptop computers address each of these difficulties by traveling with the teacher. The teacher knows exactly what programs are installed on her machine every time she starts it up. She can access any of her recent documents easily from the Documents sub-menu under the Start menu of a Windows-based laptop, or from the Recent Documents sub-menu under the Apple menu of an Apple laptop. When a problem occurs, the teacher is responsible for getting it fixed, and she is the only one who suffers if she doesn’t.

The ability to travel easily with a computer creates a number of interesting opportunities for teachers. Teachers are much more likely to keep a grade book electronically when they can enter grades and comments at home rather than having to stay late at school or sacrifice a prep period. Additionally, teachers can create web-based projects and PowerPoint presentations where they do the majority of their planning—at home.

Until a few years ago, laptop programs for teachers were cost-prohibitive and fraught with technical challenges. For most schools, the choice between the $1,500 desktop and the $3,000 laptop was not a difficult one. Laptops also lagged painfully behind desktop PCs, due to the difficulty of cooling processors with ever-increasing speeds and accommodating feature-rich components in their tiny cases. The prospect of laptops in the classroom also made many network administrators shudder when they thought of the spaghetti pot of network and electrical wires necessary for each room.

Recently, however, laptop technology has taken a giant leap forward and has far outpaced the software needs of the average user. The laptop with the Pentium III 500 MHz processor that one can buy for about $2,000 does a great job running the software in schools today, which, in most cases, is the same software that was running on Pentium II 250 MHz machines three years ago. I actually wrote this column on the same laptop that most of our faculty uses and the same machine I manage our network from—a Pentium MMX 200 MHz machine with 98 MB of RAM.

The 802.11f standard also has made the prospect of laptops in schools more attractive. The standard has given a number of hardware manufacturers the motivation to step up their efforts in the wireless networking arena. This, in turn, has driven the prices of wireless PCMCIA cards and hubs down to an affordable level. The drop in price has put wireless laptop networks well within the reach of most schools.

Many schools use mobile wireless laptop labs on carts to augment and, in some cases, replace their computer labs. The ability to get right to work without having to worry about finding power or network connections and untangling network patch cables is very attractive to teachers.

While the advantages of a faculty laptop program are relatively obvious, the implementation of such a program is not as clear-cut. Many schools purchase laptops for their faculty, while others require the teachers to pay the discounted educational price. Some schools will allow teachers to pay for their machines by having a small amount deducted from their paychecks over time.

Schools also must establish who is responsible for a lost, stolen, or broken laptop, as well as what happens to the machine when a teacher leaves the school. Finally, schools need to outline what training, if any, will be required of the teachers in their program.

Unfortunately, there are no clear resolutions to these issues. Rather, they must be addressed according to the unique character of an individual school.

At St. Benedict’s, we chose to purchase the machines for our teachers. We felt this might encourage teachers who thought technology could work in their classrooms, but weren’t convinced enough to shell out $2,000 for their own machine. We ask that our teachers add the machines to their homeowner’s insurance policies and be responsible if a machine is lost or stolen.

Purchasing the laptops for our teachers also gives us the ability to require teachers to attend curriculum integration workshops. I usually run a couple of weeks’ worth of summer workshops, which all laptop teachers are required to attend. In these workshops, I cover the technical aspects of how the machine works, but I also demonstrate ways to use them in the classroom. When teachers leave, we sometimes give them the option of purchasing the machine at a depreciated price.

We’re beginning our third year of the program now, and things seem to be going very well. Laptop teachers tend to use technology in their curriculum more often. They often tell me how convenient it is to be able to move seamlessly between homework and schoolwork, and they all feel they’re being given the tools they need to do their job well. They understand that integrating technology into the curriculum is something that the school and administration are taking seriously, and they know their contributions are valued as an integral part of that effort.

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