South Dakota gives laptops to all

But quantifiable proof that they improve achievement are actually hard to come by.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor on

A few states - Maine, Virginia and now South Dakota - are experimenting with providing students with laptops. The latest project is South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds' $4 million plan to put computers on the laps of 5,000 students. But Argus Leader reporter Brenda Wade Schmidt takes a look at whether such programs actually improve learning.

While officials believe laptops will "enhance achievement" quantitative proofs are hard to find.

"The kinds of learning going on through the laptops is not going to show up on our statewide test," said David Silvernail, director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

Standardized tests measure student recall, while technology helps teach other things such as problem solving, critical thinking and other skills that educators say students need in the 21st century.

Silvernail's office is doing a study comparing 25 control schools to 25 experimental schools in teaching math. Preliminary study results, possibly the first hard data in the country, show laptops are positive, he said.

"It looks like we're one of the only states that has hard evidence," Silvernail said. "You really can get changes in achievement if you do systematically, sustained work on it."

In South Dakota's pilot program planned for next fall, officials will look for schools with economically disadvantaged students and those that haven't met No Child Left Behind Act requirements.

At Watertown High School, educators have seen gains in reading and math in specific programs, said Principal Brian Field. The school has leased laptops for all high school students for three years and is regarded as the South Dakota model.

"It's a powerful tool for classroom instruction and student learning," he said. But the district has never tried to show a correlation between laptop use and better standardized test scores.

Surveys at Watertown showed last year that students used laptops most often for PowerPoint presentations, research and word processing.

Students also said in the survey that they preferred doing school work with the laptops and were more excited about learning. They also improved their technology skills because of the laptop use.


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