Laptops are a Costly Mistake for Schools

Ouch. Did I just say that? Aren’t I supposed be a technology “evangelist,” a super-geek promoter of all things computer-centric, bleeding-edge and complicated? Aren’t I “HiTechHall,” after all?

Well yes. And no. I AM an evangelist for using “appropriate” technology in order to make life and learning simpler and more enriching. Let’s face it, even a Luddite would agree that technology is rapidly changing our lives and “flattening the world,” to use Friedman’s too-often quoted term. Schools need someone on staff to help interpret, translate and integrate all of these new tools and techniques into meaningful learning modules. But I am far from a connoisseur of technology for it’s own sake. In fact, my style is to hang back from the bleeding-edge while closely monitoring other schools that are brave, moneyed or foolish enough to risk being technology early-adopters. They say that wisdom comes from learning from mistakes, right?

One technology development I’ve been watching for awhile now has been the establishment of laptops in schools, in a move toward so called “one-to-one” computing. The idea sounds good to me, which is to use laptops to provide a new platform for learning that offers much more than textbooks can, while incorporating all sorts of useful communication, collaboration and research capabilities. But maybe educators are starting to realize that laptops in schools are not such a great idea after all, as evidenced by these two recent articles:

And I could have told them so. Though I will only focus on one part of the problem − maintenance — after several years of struggling with laptops as a technology coordinator at a large magnet school in the US, I gave up on the idea of moving toward a one-to-one program. The bottom line is that k-12 students are just too punishing on these delicate devices. The maintenance costs for broken screens and keyboards, neither of which are normally covered under warranties, are astronomical − and these are by far the most common forms of laptop damage in schools.

My school had several sets of wireless COWS (Computers on Wheels) carts, Mac and PC, and at any one time 25-75% of the machines where inoperable, despite huge outlays of money and time constantly troubleshooting and repairing them. Other machines mysteriously disappeared, batteries were defective (especially in the Macs) and the wireless routers almost never worked, so students had to go hunting for Cat-5 cables and Ethernet ports wherever they could find them. They also had to make sure an electrical outlet was close by to compensate for the poor battery performance. Cables and wires were strewn everywhere, creating hazards and mayhem throughout the school. And this was and is still a common problem according to many other technology educators I talk to.

Things got so bad that our technology committee decided to salvage what we could of the laptops and then use a cable lock to fasten the surviving laptops to desks, in effect creating a “desktop” out of a more expensive laptop. Not an ideal solution, but I bet that those machines, chained up as they are, are still being used for learning by students today.

Look, there is no doubt that the convenience and portability of laptops is hands down a great improvement on stationary, immobile desktop computers, in theory. I certainly recommend laptops for administrator and teacher use, and I use laptops myself. And at home, I know most students do as well. But in reality, when the school is footing the bill, the solid, immobile desktop is still the most practical solution and investment for student use.

I look forward to the day when the price of “bullet-proof” laptops, such as the Panasonic ToughBook, used in law enforcement and the military, drops to something more affordable. As I’m sure that anyone who is reading this (is anyone reading this?) who has experience teaching middle schoolers will agree that that environment can often resemble a near war zone. When schools can afford Toughbooks, I will be the first to jump on the one-to-one bandwagon. For now, I’ll sit back and watch the laptop mayhem continue at the early-adopter schools, sitting safely behind my clunky Dell GX620.

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4 thoughts on “Laptops are a Costly Mistake for Schools

  1. Hi Steven – an interesting post regarding the shifting approach to laptop technology in the US. Here in the UK the 1 to 1 model in primary schools is thin on the ground. In fact as a school we are soon to be investing in some laptops for individual classes, so I was most intrigued by your thoughts and the articles you linked to. However I believe that we are approaching it in a different way, we are seeing this as the first step towards our vision of classes equipped so that the children have a greater choice about when and where to use technology in their learning.

  2. Aren’t issues of laptop treatment and maintenance, classroom management issues? We are not one-to-one but rather provide carts in the boat loads to classes on a need basis, but I am hesitant to say that laptops in students’ hands are not a good idea only because kids can’t treat them well. I consider the treatment of equipment something that fits under classroom management.

    Yes, classroom management that is different than what teachers are used to, but so is the teaching. Teachers need support (I posted on this) with this, but if they get it then laptops in students’ hands and in environments where they are learning already (instead of heading to the computer lab), must be a positive move.

    One to one changes the dynamic because kids can be rough with them outside of teacher supervision, but then isn’t that a matter of family responsibility for maintenance cost or is that unaffordable for most families so schools have to take on that cost?

  3. Hi Tom and Dennis. I appreciate your comments on my recent post (my first REAL responses to my still fairly-new blog).

    As I mentioned I am fully in support of the IDEA behind 1:1 computing. Yes we should absolutely aim toward getting the devices as close to the location of learning as possible. But for the reasons I mentioned — and other reasons that others have mentioned — I don’t think laptops are ready for school-time yet.

    So rather than rely completely on laptops, one option is to mix up the layout of computers in the school, with a combination of fixed computer labs, classrooms with 5 or so desktops placed in each, and a limited number of COWS. This is the model that I have used in the past, and no, it’s not ideal.

    If possible, I say spend any extra money on tougher COW laptops. Or alternatively, I’m curious about the possibility of going with cheaper options, such as One Laptop Per Child’s XO, though I don’t know about availability of this device to regular consumers. At $100 a piece, and built specifically-rugged for kids in the developing world, I wonder if this little Linux-running laptop could fill the gap when students need portability, while not doing away with more powerful stationary desktops appropriate for other school uses.

    I agree with you both that a solid, realistic plan for implementation, teacher training, student use, and last but not least, maintenance considerations are the most important thing a school can do to increase the success of laptops in schools. This has not been a strong feature at the laptop-using schools I’ve seen and experienced. Cooperation with families (i.e. sharing laptop costs, responsibilities) is important also. And of course some schools do have far deeper pockets than others, and can better adapt to originally-unplanned-for costs, and/or have a team of certified computer technicians on staff.

    But I must agree with myself that the bottom line is that laptops marketed to schools today are still too delicate and temperamental for effective large-scale use in the “typical” school. I know we’re not far off from the day when that is no longer true. At that point, we can work on finding ways to deal with the other problems I haven’t mentioned regarding laptops, such as the ones illustrated in this article from The Wall Street Journal, as well as those I link to in my original post.

  4. As a soon-to-be colleague, I am happy to see we share similar thoughts on this matter. A recent ECIS tech discussion talked much about 1to1 as if it was not if we should do it, but how we should do it. Either I missed the “if” discussion or it had been trampled on in the manner of a large beast treading on insignificant bug in the undergrowth by the leading lights.

    With (too) much of my life revolving around technology it is often easy to put too much focus on the tools and the toys and not so much on what we want to do with them. As technology advocates in education we could do well to focus our efforts on a balance of teaching not just how to use the tools, but whether we should even bother using them at all.

    In education there are very few issues or challenges that come up with clear well defined solutions. Almost always the way through is a matter of balancing approaches and resources, and technology provision is a good case in point. Having technology around for use as and when it is needed is a good and fair goal. Whether 1to1 is the best solution for this is, to my mind, definitely open to question.

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