Lapping it up

Microsoft's campaign to give every student a laptop meets resistance—from Bill Gates' alma mater

B>Next Friday, more than 500 educators from around the country are expected at the downtown Sheraton for "Anytime Anywhere Learning Summit 98," the third annual pep rally and teach-in on technology in the classroom, which will focus specifically on curricula and software designed for laptop computers.

The people behind this powwow—principally Microsoft and Toshiba—have hitched interests in a joint venture called "Learning with Laptops," for which they already have recruited more than 50 eager schools that now provide various classroom and take-home laptop programs. Local "Learning with Laptop" participants include the Seattle, Snohomish, and Federal Way school districts, under a $1.7 million state program called the Copernicus Project.

The hype for this program sounds drearily familiar to anyone who has encountered the mighty Microsoft marketing machine. "Imagine a school where every student has his or her own portable computer," begins the vision statement behind the AAL Summit, "uses it like a pencil and paper, can learn anytime or anywhere, and produce the caliber of work that would be accepted in boardrooms around the world." The blurb goes on to tell heartwarming stories about redemption-through-Microsoft-Word in Harlem, and includes worksheets on handling the press.

There is unlikely and notable resistance to the laptop initiative coming from, ironically enough, the elite Lakeside School—Bill Gates' alma mater. Lakeside English Department chair Judy Lightfoot has posted her vehement opposition to the school's laptop plan on Lakeside's Web site (to compound the irony), at In a 3,500-word treatise titled "Laptops in the Classroom: A bad idea whose time has come," Lightfoot—who declines to talk to the press—declares, "Frankly, I have seen no substantive arguments that this would be a good idea."

Lightfoot's opposition comes as Lakeside winds up one of the most successful fund-raising drives in secondary-school history, thanks to three $10 million donations from Gates (class of '73), Microsoft co-founder and high school buddy Paul Allen ('71), and the McCaw brothers—Bruce ('64), Craig ('68), John ('69), and Keith ('72).

Given that it falls so closely on the heels of the massive donation from Gates, et al., it would seem that the laptop program is a quid pro quo. But Lakeside spokeswoman Jean Patterson denies that the laptop proposal, which would require every student to purchase one, has any connection to Lakeside's famous alumni or their recent generosity (although Gates' sister, Libby Armintrout ['82], sits on the school's deliberating Technology Task Force). Patterson emphasizes that Lakeside is only considering a laptop-per-student program and that decisions are premature at this time.

AAL-participating teachers view the laptop program with what might be called qualified enthusiasm. "To say that this is going to make geniuses out of everybody just isn't true," explains Mike Hyland, a fifth-grade teacher at Riverview Elementary in Snohomish who works with laptops both in his classroom and as part-time designer of high-tech curricula for the district. "I still have kids who struggle with getting work in, but for students who like to strive, they're going beyond anything you can possibly imagine... creating presentations, PowerPoint storybooks, rewriting work, and graphing data instantly. It's amazing."

Hyland's class happens to be an excellent case study for the laptop program. Riverview is a public school that cannot legally require families to purchase portable computers—as Lakeside's proposal would—and exactly half of his class have bought laptops, for $58 per month over four years ($2,784 total). Hyland says corporate sponsorships (Boeing, Hewlett Packard) and a gift from the Snohomish Foundation provide financial assistance for the families that need it and that there is no notable economic distinction between his laptopped and laptopless students. Hyland reports that the portable computers provide "huge advantages" in the classroom, and he highly recommends the program, although he also says that his students without laptops perform just as well (and receive the same good grades) as their wired peers.

"The research hasn't shown that computers improve academic achievement," agrees Francisco Grijalva, headmaster of Overlake School in Redmond, which is also experimenting with laptops. Grijalva says he remains committed to the laptop program, especially its collateral benefits (like basic computer training and student enthusiasm), and will bump Overlake's technology budget 30 percent next year to $130,000. (Overlake pays for many of its students' laptops.)

The lack of empirical evidence that laptops themselves are classroom assets leads some to question their extraordinary price tag. Jeffrey Fouts, a consultant and program evaluator of the state's Copernicus Project and professor of education at Seattle Pacific University, says he wouldn't enroll his son, a public-school student, in a laptop program. He says that his son's school is well equipped with standard desktop computers, that his son uses the family computer at home, and that the $2,700 laptop price tag could eliminate a family vacation or an international educational exchange for his son. (According to Grijalva, Overlake is also well equipped with desktop computers and almost every student has a computer at home—a similar situation, no doubt, as at Lakeside.) Professor Fouts argues that floppy disks and e-mail can handle the computer-portability issue, and as far as the 24-hour "anytime anywhere learning" opportunity afforded by laptops, he says, "We already have 24-hour learning available to every student in the state—it's called books."

Lightfoot and Fouts both generally support computer use for students and encourage families with the interest and resources to invest in laptops to do so. But the expense and wisdom of state- or school-supported laptop programs over simple tried-and-true educational initiatives give them pause. "A [laptop] mandate would add $800,000-$1,600,000 to Lakeside's annual educational expenditures," Lightfoot writes, "... drain[ing] off finances better spent on financial aid." (The increase amounts to 7 percent of the school's education budget, and Lightfoot says that Lakeside already turns down otherwise-qualified students due to lack of available scholarship funds.) "If improved learning is the goal, why not spend more money on reducing class size? Students whose parents read books do better in school. If 'equity' is an issue, why not ensure that every home has a small but good library to use?"

Lightfoot argues that laptops could even erode Lakeside's topnotch education by distracting students from classroom instruction and driving overall curricula. Technology is only a tool, she intones, and should never dominate the learning environment: "Our future global citizens will have a shallower understanding and appreciation of the more ordinary, natural materials that shape the daily lives of most of the world's people."

No one doubts that basic computer skills are vital, and that schools should help supply that training. But few seem convinced of the pedagogical magic of these excessively expensive and fragile gadgets—other than those who stand to make money on their widespread use. Students do seem to love 'em, though, and we do want children excited about learning. But kids' enthusiasm is hardly an argument in favor of anything—it's the same sort of enthusiasm, after all, that makes kids crazy for McDonald's.

Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere site

Lakeside School's homepage

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