Two recent developments have brought the debate over school laptop initiatives back into the spotlight: An Aug. 31 piece in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) cited parents and education experts who voiced concerns over the effectiveness of such programs. Just days earlier, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) announced a new book, 1-to-1 Learning: Laptop Programs that Work, that profiles several states and school districts whose one-to-one initiatives have been branded a success.

According to the WSJ article, some parents and technology experts are part of a growing opposition to one-to-one programs. Only a few years ago, the article states, these programs were introduced to schools across the county, often amid great fanfare and with encouragement from large computer manufacturers such as Apple and Dell. But now, the article says, some parents and educators are having second thoughts over the programs’ higher-than-anticipated costs and the potential for students to use the technology inappropriately.

“What she learned was how to play games and eMail her friends,” parent Shawna Adam of Fullerton, Calif., told the newspaper about her sixth-grade daughter, Abby. “School was one big, happy gabfest.”

Proponents of the movement, such as ISTE and others, take a far different stance. According to them, one-to-one initiatives provide learning in an engaging, relevant context that is essential to preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century. “Very good learning takes place in social settings, where effective communications among learners and between learners and experts is encouraged or required,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of ISTE. “To think these communications shouldn’t be done in a 21st-century context with 21st-century tools is a counterproductive and short-sighted attitude.”

According to figures provided by the Bellevue, Wash.-based Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, the number of North American students enrolled in one-to-one programs is growing annually at 15 percent and now totals more than 500,000.

But even as these numbers drive higher, critics say the true costs of a comprehensive laptop program–from training staff, to drafting new curriculum, to installing wireless networks in schools–are just now becoming apparent.

“As educational dollars have grown more scarce, those extra costs give pause to more people,” noted Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

As school leaders think more carefully about how best to improve learning, they are beginning to move away from riskier one-to-one programs and are considering other options, such as giving the laptops to teachers instead, says Karen Bruett, vice president of Dell’s K-12 education business, which supplies laptops to hundreds of schools across the nation. Many schools also are investing in “laptop carts” that can be deployed within a school as necessary.

The contrasting viewpoints between the WSJ article and ISTE’s book are proof that the long-winding debate over the sustainability and effectiveness of one-to-one learning projects is far from over. Since the first widespread programs began cropping up in school districts more than five years ago, arguments have arisen over the degree of success the programs have brought to the school systems that have implemented them.

ISTE’s book aims to clear up what it calls some misconceptions in this area. In it, author Pamela Livingston lays out a comprehensive guide that shows school leaders how to plan, implement, and manage a successful one-to-one laptop program. To do this, she profiles several one-to-one programs already underway, including the Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia and statewide initiatives in Maine and Michigan.

“There is evidence of the success of one-to-one programs; in some cases, testing has improved, but in nearly every school attendance has improved,” says Livingston. “This speaks to a vital factor–motivation. If children are more motivated to show up for school, they will be there to do the work, study, learn, and not fall behind.”

Though some parents worry about their children using laptops to spend class time sending instant messages to friends and creating pages on social-networking web sites such as MySpace.com, others feel such communication tools can be used to teachers’ advantage in the classroom.

“The best teachers set up learning situations in which students use modern, robust communication tools to engage in learning and productivity,” said ISTE’s Knezek.

One of the districts Livingston profiles in her book is Henrico County, a pioneer of the one-to-one model–and a recipient of both praise and criticism for its efforts.

In the past year, 232 Henrico students reportedly have been suspended for violating the school’s acceptable-use policy. The cases have included using school computers to search for pornography and hijacking wireless internet access from their neighbors at home, says Lisa Marshall, PTA president of Henrico’s Tuckahoe Middle School.

Despite these and other troubles, Livingston believes what Henrico has done with its program should serve as a model for other school districts considering a foray into one-to-one learning.

“Henrico is teaching a vital lesson to students about appropriate use of computers, which must be taught everywhere,” she said. “They also have worked hard to provide filtering and monitoring tools.”

As to tapping into Wi-Fi spots, Livingston said, “unfortunately this is widespread and not just an issue for students. Everyone needs to password-protect home internet access.”

Since they were first introduced to students and teachers several years ago, one-to-one programs have had a history of successes and failures, all of which have contributed to the public’s perception of them.

Michigan’s one-to-one initiative, dubbed “Freedom to Learn,” has encountered various problems in its short history. Despite being launched with grand ambitions, it has faced cuts in funding since its introduction in 2003. The program, which sought eventually to provide laptops to more than 130,000 sixth-graders throughout the state, currently serves just 27,000 students, 1,500 teachers, and 500 administrators.

In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Mike Rounds has proposed using $13 million in state funds to help school districts buy or lease laptops for high school students. The proposal has sparked protests from critics who say such decisions should be made locally.

The news is better in other places, however. In Maine, home to the first statewide distribution of laptops, administrators recently signed a $41 million contract with Apple to provide 32,000 students and 4,000 teachers with new iBooks. The latest deal increases the number of laptops in Maine public schools to more than 70,000.

Though problems have been reported in Henrico and other places, proponents of one-to-one initiatives say the benefits outweigh any potential problems schools are likely to encounter.

ISTE’s Knezek estimates that one-to-one programs will become more common as the cost of equipment goes down and the probability for success becomes apparent.

“Within five to seven years, I expect a student without a personal computing device–it may look different from a laptop by then–will be as unheard of as a physics student today without a calculator,” he said.

(Editor’s note: For more stories about one-to-one computing and the issues it raises for schools, see our Educators’ Resource Center on One-to-One Computing: http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/reports/1to1computing.)

Links:

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

Anywhere Anytime Learning Foundation
http://www.aalf.org