Supporting Learning in a One-Laptop-Per-Child Future

A compelling issue in education and school planning is how to engage “digital natives” in the learning process, especially when they are being taught by “digital immigrants.” Children who are immersed in technology from the moment they are born expect technology connections to be a part of every experience — including school. This month we spoke with Tim Mauldin of Websopht, Inc., about the issues involved in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program.

One Laptop Per Child (laptop.org/) has a goal of providing their product to children in impoverished countries. The product is a basic, functional laptop that can be powered by hand and can take a lot of abuse, including submerging the keyboard. The goal is obviously a noble one and could potentially help children in emerging economies. In North America, however, laptops in school programs haven’t worked so well. Aside from notable successes like the middle school program in Yarmouth, ME, (www.wmtw.com/news/13360529/detail.html), laptops have been an expensive exercise in futility for many schools. The main complaints are that laptops are too expensive, more distracting than useful, and that the technological infrastructure cannot handle them.

Laptop programs are tending to be more expensive than anticipated by budget makers. Repairs to laptop screens and cases can be overwhelming and costly. Of the companies making laptops for children, OLPC has made strides in making them durable enough to withstand the rough handling given to them by students. This sort of model may be what is needed to provide students with laptops that are virtually indestructible.

Students probably do not need a top-of-the-line computer for basic learning. A school-issued laptop definitely is not the computer that taxpayers want to imagine students using to play the latest and greatest computer games. The OLPC laptop provides students with the necessary equipment for learning activities. They can use the Internet for research, do word processing, and since the operating system is a stripped down version of Linux, they can even write software to improve their own computers. This somewhat constrained capability takes care of the complaint that students use their laptops for non-learning purposes. With limited, but sufficient functionality, the laptop remains a learning tool while being less appealing as simply an entertainment device.

When planning a facility, the infrastructure should be designed to make one-to-one computing possible. A primary consideration is designing the network infrastructure to handle a potentially large number of students who have the capability of surfing the Web at the same time. A study period should not overload the network when many students are trying to do research.

Planning a facility for machines like the computers made by OLPC is easier when Internet access is completely wireless. This significantly reduces the cost of network infrastructure. A wireless display is also something to consider for classrooms. If students can easily take turns connecting to it and giving presentations, then it would eliminate the need for cabling in classrooms. Likewise, a wireless print server can be used to print wirelessly, either in the classroom or in workrooms.

Until wireless power is available, classrooms need adequate electrical outlets to handle the laptops. Laptops created on the OLPC model can compensate somewhat, since they require little power and have incredibly long battery lives. However, charging stations should still be plentiful to keep classroom distraction to a minimum if someone’s battery dies.

The space required for a laptop of the OLPC type is much less than that of a traditional laptop. A desk designed for one OLPC laptop and paper and pencil could likely be smaller than one needed for a larger laptop plus paper and pencil. Obviously, classroom desks or tables would still need to remain appropriately sized for a wide array of learning activities. Math teachers, for example, will tell you that math is going to continue to require using paper and pencil, with calculators that are approved on standardized tests being the electronic device of choice.

Many of the failures of laptop programs have been due to poor planning, which ranges from purchasing to training to curriculum design. There can be resistance to change by teachers who are often “digital immigrants,” and teachers will have to be trained on how to integrate these devices into the learning process. OLPC programs will only be successful if teachers are knowledgeable and motivated to implement these learning tools in their classrooms and the technology is in place to make the tools work.

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