No impact, no use, no access. Though one can always point to a specific classroom (or even school) where technology has had an impact, the fact remains that over the past 25 years, the impact of computing technologies on K-12 education in the United States has been, to a first-order approximation, zero. Why? It’s simple. Impact comes from students using computers; use depends on access; and our children simply have not had any significant access to technology in schools.

Technology can have an impact. Though the Todd Oppenheimers can twist the facts all they want, the data are absolutely clear: Technology does have an impact on learning when six basic conditions are met. (No mystery here–sufficient access, adequate professional development, appropriate curriculum, appropriate evaluation, supportive school culture, and supportive community.)

One-to-one access is a necessary condition for impact. Education changed when each and every child was able to have his or her own pencil. And in the early 1960s, when every child was able to have his or her own book, education changed again. Putting these technologies literally into everyone’s hands gave teachers opportunities to develop new instructional strategies that depended on and leveraged the fact that each and every child had his or her own book and pencil. And when every child has his or her own computer–not one to share, not one that stays at school, not one way too complex for everyday use, but a truly personal computer–then education will change again.

Laptops are a passing fad. Politicians, who tend to focus on near-term, highly visible solutions, are pushing laptops on K-12 schools. But K-12 schools are not going to achieve one-to-one access with laptops; there simply isn’t enough money to buy laptops for each of the 55 million K-12 school children in the United States. For example, in New Hampshire’s laptop program, that state’s governor, Craig Benson, observed: “Once the school year is done, the computers will remain in the classroom and not move on to eighth grade with the student. This way, we whet their appetite for learning.” Whet and then dash is more like it. And no school administrator wants to explain to parents why he or she is taking their child’s computer away. In Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Initiative, the state is guaranteeing funds for the first year of a four-year laptop lease. Maybe that’s why 83 percent of the administrators polled in Michigan said they weren’t going to participate in this politically inspired program.

Only with handheld computers can we achieve true one-to-one access. For the overwhelming majority of day-in, day-out learning activities, each child does not need his or her own laptop computer. Schoolchildren need task-appropriate functionality, not excess functionality. (And teachers need simple tools for their classrooms that make their lives easier, not more complex and hassled.) The emerging handheld-computing technologies are just what K-12 education needs: low-cost, simple to learn and use, and appropriate for K-12 learning activities. One can indeed envision each and every one of the 55 million U.S. school children being issued a handheld computer–tomorrow. Given the cost of a handheld, it’s no longer an issue of money; it’s simply an issue of will.

Handhelds can take full advantage of K-12’s cyber infrastructure. The one or two computers at the back of the classroom, though heretofore a management nightmare for teachers, are critically important in the handheld-centric classroom. Children can use these machines to back up their handheld computers, and they can use the bigger desktop screens for such activities as data visualization, accessing the internet, running the scanner, etc. Laptops (or desktops) need to be in the classroom, just not on a one-to-one basis.

Schools don’t want technology; schools want curriculum. To impact K-12 education, technology needs to address genuine curricular needs. Truth is, beyond word processing, technology has been peripheral to the core curriculum. Not so the handheld-centric classroom. Finally, students and teachers can engage in project-based learning. Each and every student has his or her documents available 24-7, at the tap of stylus, employing multiple media, generated and revised in a collaborative fashion over an extended period of time–and that’s the backbone necessary to pursue a project-based curriculum effectively.

It’s about evolution, not revolution. In the old days, we told teachers: “You will have to change everything in order to use technology.” What a horrible model for change; we were so & silly? Stupid? Arrogant? (Pick one.) In contrast, when asked today, “Where do I begin using handhelds,” we say: “Start with your existing curriculum and add a bit of handheld computing.” For example, if a teacher already does paper-based concept mapping, then we suggest using a handheld-based concept-mapping tool. And we suggest going one step further: Have the children share (via infrared beaming) their concept maps with each other, do peer editing, and then beam the edited maps back to their original owners. Pulling off such a lesson successfully breeds confidence and the willingness to do even more with handheld computers.

The kids these days are digital kids. They have MP3 players implanted in their ears, cell phones glued to their lips, thumbs twitching on keys, and multiple, simultaneous instant-messaging sessions going. And we want them to read books and use a paper and pencil! As Secretary of Education Rod Paige points out, we need to create “digital-age educational opportunities to match the expectations of digital-age students.” Desktops and laptops are the personal computers for the Sgt Joe Friday generation. Handhelds are the personal computers for today’s digital kids.

For at least 25 years, educational technology advocates have promised an impact from technology on K-12 education. This time, it will happen. Why? This time, it’s coming from the bottom up, from the children themselves. This time, we are not bringing computers into the classroom; this time, we aren’t trying to figure out how to use technology and euphemistically calling it “integrating technology into the curriculum.”

Yes, of course, much work needs to be done to make the handheld-centric classroom an effective teaching and learning platform: (1) because one-to-one access means one teacher and 30 computers, we desperately need to provide considerable support for teachers; (2) because teachers aren’t curriculum developers, we need to provide concrete, standards-based lessons to cover all grade levels and subjects; and (3) many details–significant ones, to be sure–still need to be worked out. Thank heaven for the K-12 community.

We end with one last fact: In one to two years, every child will come to school, plop some form of handheld computer–be it a cell phone, game machine, musical instrument, sports viewer, or some combination of these–on his or her desk, and look up at the teacher, expectantly. A supportive response on our part will unleash or engender learning the likes of which we haven’t seen. (The alternative is simply not acceptable.)

See these related links:


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Council of the Great City Schools

Cathleen Norris is a professor of technology and cognition at the University of North Texas. Elliot Soloway is a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. They are the co-founders of GoKnow Inc., an educational software company that provides software, curriculum, and professional development to make teachers and students successful in handheld-centric classrooms.