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Cautionary ICT tale: Laptops not a panacea in Alexandria, Va.

The Washington Post yesterday (“For Some, Laptops Don’t Compute“) reported on an model ICT rollout in a DC area suburban high school system. In the fall of 2004, the Alexandria school system gave every high school student a new laptop leased by the district over four years. The rollout was part of larger effort to modernize the city, probably driven in part at the time by the nascent buzz around municipal wireless clusters. The initiative’s goal was, according to the Post, “to make the machines indispensable, linking them to electronic textbooks, classroom projectors and other academic tools” as well as linking them to the web on new wi-fi networks.

I couldn’t help but think of the One Laptop per Child project with plans to distribute millions of laptops to school children in low-income countries. There are important lessons to be learned from the Alexandria experience and similar places (state wide programs in Michigan and Maine according to the same Post article) if OLPC is to truly be the great leap forward its promoters promise.

Two years into the Alexandria rollout some are now arguing the $1.65 million expense has yet to produce justifiable improvements in student performance. The question about impact is hard to estimate without a strict evaluation strategy beforehand (read the first comment in this OLPC wiki post “Parable 2“, in the same vein as Easterly and others on rigourous eval). And not surprisingly some school officials were quick to defend the program.

Alexandria officials say it is too soon to gauge laptop-driven achievement gains, because T.C. Williams started issuing the machines in fall 2004 to sophomores, juniors and seniors, and the Minnie Howard School, which feeds into T.C., began distributing Dell laptops to ninth-graders in fall 2003.

Others pointed to the significant difference between introducing new technology for its own sake and thoughtful rollout of effective pedagogy reform.

“I think they made the realization that they may have put the cart before the horse,” said G.A. Hagen, a technology resource teacher at T.C. Williams. “It was like, ‘Okay, teacher, here’s the laptop — go with it,’ and [teachers] were like, ‘What do you mean, go with it? Is there a Web site I go to?’ “

Lessons have been learned, if not formally evaluated, and teachers are now trained on software apps and curriculum strategies while students are offered instruction on effective ways to get more from the laptops. One web application now in place at the Alexandria system is Blackboard, an electronic space built for instructor and students to post lectures, provide mentored forums, and backend grade management if needed. Only now, two years into the program are nearly “all T.C. Williams teachers … trained on Blackboard. They will be required to make their courses available on the system by Jan. 8 and to use the program regularly by June.”

I’m surprised I haven’t been able to find much on incorporating appropriate educational tools into the OLPC project yet. A quick check of the OLPC wiki had a paragraph about educational strategies, limited text on documentation and incorporating OLPC into effective pedagogy in low-income settings as well as long laundry list of questions from the interested and curious. You should definitely browse the wiki if you have any interest in the OLPC project. And anticipating criticisms in the Post article, the OLPC wiki does mention teacher training, recognizing that it will be an obviously important element driven by local experts but no greater detail yet.

The OLPC has a admirable goal to take the information age to children who have little chance to be part of it now. Yet to see OLPC as a success five years from now, more thought and effort must be put into user-centered design. There are some entertaining images of village children cranking the machines by night to watch DVDs with their family gathered ’round, but more needs to be done (and shared with an eager world) to indicate how this tool will improve student performance in grossly under-performing educational settings; or in five years’ time we might be reading about the OLPC in the same underwhelmed tone of today’s Washington Post article.


Written by Ben

December 12, 2006 at 1:16 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] THD Blog (see Bellows’ comment) This entry was posted in Uncategorized by . Bookmark the […]

  2. odoqvafo

    September 19, 2008 at 3:45 am

  3. And returning to costs… in addition to teacher training, running a huge ICT project will require scaled trouble shooting skillsets. The educational training, IT support, hardware replacement, and connectivity charges raise the laptop package cost to nearly $1000 over five years by one estimate “What is the Real Cost of the OLPC?“. If you check it out, definitely read the comments that follow the article. The cost debates are carried forward in a second post (“Implementation Cost Follow-Up to NewsForge & Slashdot“.


    December 13, 2006 at 7:59 pm

  4. One of the other blog contributors and I work on distinct projects exploring kids and new media in diverse settings in the US. The project that I work on is focused on enabling STEM (science, technology, and engineering, and math) education for the K-6 level (ages 5-12). We are currently focusing our efforts on after-school science programs for girls in urban settings. In STEM, there is growing research and interest into gender inequities – for example, see the Gender & Science Digital Library. I suspect that girls not finding their laptops useful was the result of multiple causes, inside and outside of the classroom, not just of the technology program itself.

    While we do need to learn from what has been done for education in countries such as the US, with respect to both technology and gender, we must not lose sight of differences in various international settings. Gender norms, classroom environments, and teacher training all vary from place to place. Understanding those differences will inform more useful policies, programs, and curriculum.

    Cat, for a more direct answer to your inquiry, check out the research on Kids’ Informal Learning with Digital Media funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


    December 13, 2006 at 10:30 am

  5. Thanks for the comments. You got me to look through a link I received today. Maine’s program has some interesting clues to the myriad challenges OLPC must be facing now or soon (check out FAQs under Deployment on the Maine site for starters).

    Yeah, data on utilization by gender would be great. I dug around the Maine project a bit and found several evaluation reports from 2003 and 2004. A quick scan of the Feb 2004 report didn’t turn up any gender data but it did report students’ utilization by subject over three semesters and teacher use of laptops.


    December 13, 2006 at 2:11 am

  6. I find it interesting (read depressing) that the students who are quoted as finding their laptops least useful were girls. Sigh. I wonder if this is representative of how the students feel or just the quotes that the reporter could get/thought were the most interesting.

    Is there any data out there on how kids are actually using their computers? Based on my own neices and nephews, I would reckon music videos, unsavory things that get you lots of spyware, games (MMORPGs, et al.), some dodgy and some useful downloads, youtube, myspace, DVDs, silly searches of Britney and Paris, etc. Much to my chagrin, they’re not going to the NYTimes.

    Well there is one bright spot to making the kids use laptops in every single class even if their grades don’t go up. They’re saving trees. Very expensive trees.

    Cat Laine

    December 12, 2006 at 11:58 pm

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