Laptops for teachers

Unlike the oft-maligned OLPC and student laptop initiatives that keep cropping up, providing teachers with laptops can result in serious gains in productivity and technology integration.

Unlike the oft-maligned OLPC and student laptop initiatives that keep cropping up, providing teachers with laptops can result in serious gains in productivity and technology integration. I have yet to see any evidence that providing students, whether in Africa or Maine, with individual laptops is better than funding widely-accessible labs and classrooms with well-integrated technological tools. On the other hand, I have first-hand experience that would suggest that teachers really can benefit from having their own computers.

Our school received a very generous gift that allowed us to provide all teachers with either a laptop or a desktop computer. While these computers obviously remain the property of the school district, each teacher has been able to take ownership of his/her PC. While not fully utilized by 100% of the staff (I'm afraid the gift didn't give us any extra money or time for training or professional development), the vast majority of teachers use them for everything from research to grading to presentations. Teacher productivity and classroom integration of technology has increased across the board, even if "technology integration" simply means bringing materials from the web into the classroom.

Not surprisingly, the teachers who use their computers the least tend to be older and generally have large repositories of classroom materials easily whipped out from year to year. However, even for these teachers, the administration can now require that grades, attendance, and behavior issues be reported online (previously, functional computers were few and far between in the classroom, preventing widespread access to our student management system). In addition, these teachers are universally willing to allow students to use these systems in class, again providing an additional point of access to the Internet in the classroom.

On the other hand, many teachers are flourishing with the new technological tools and revamping lessons to include digitally projected presentations and a variety of media.  Many teachers are also reporting that it is easier to pursue higher education with a laptop in tow.  Perhaps most importantly, many teachers actually seem to be happily working more since they can prepare for class at home as easily as they can at school.

Which of course begs the question, if funding makes it possible for your district to provide laptops to every teacher (or begin rolling laptops out through your existing lifecycle mechanisms), should all teachers get one?  Politics come into play here.  Can you really tell a teacher that you don't believe they would fully utilize a laptop, so they won't be getting one?  Probably not.  However, we gave teachers the option of a desktop computer if they felt that they were unlikely to work at home, move between classrooms, or didn't have a need to project from a computer.  While staff turnover has necessitated some shuffling of laptops and desktops, only about 20% of teachers chose a desktop so this particular paradigm has worked quite well.  The lower acquisition cost of a desktop helped the bottom line and most teachers have been very sensible about their actual usage patterns.

One final consideration is, as alluded to above, lifecycle funding (don't hear that one in this blog very often, do you?).  In our case, since all of the computers were purchased at once through a gift, we need to begin considering replacement through normal funding mechanisms now.  In most cases, though, if a district wants to ensure that there is a functional, reasonably up-to-date computer on every teacher's desk (or lap), then it needs to happen gradually and steadily.  The all-at-once approach is difficult to sustain, meaning that IT planners need to consider leasing and/or partial replacements of equipment every year.  Just can't make it through a blog without some plug for lifecycle funding in ed tech.