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They don't all really need laptops, do they?

I've been getting this question a lot lately from administrators, parents, and taxpayers. The question isn't malicious, but rather comes from folks with a vested interest in making sure that our technology dollars directly benefit students.
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Written by Christopher Dawson on

I've been getting this question a lot lately from administrators, parents, and taxpayers. The question isn't malicious, but rather comes from folks with a vested interest in making sure that our technology dollars directly benefit students. Does giving teachers laptops directly benefit students? For people who aren't actively teaching in a classroom, that's a hard question to answer.

I don't think it's very hard for teachers to answer the question, though, especially at the secondary level. For most people entering the business world, there is no question that they will have a computer on their desk when they are hired. It might be a laptop, a desktop, a shared desktop facilitated with some sort of flextime arrangement, or even a computer allowance so that the new hire can buy a machine that makes them the most productive. However, it's not terribly likely that they'll just be handed a dry erase marker and a whiteboard, pointed towards a copy machine, and told to go for it.

Teachers are no different. Without ready access to the Internet, communication and collaboration with peers and students is stifled, curriculum development grinds in an age of statewide frameworks and standards, and access to the student information system obviously goes away. This says nothing of the vast teaching resources available for free online.

Then there's development of course materials. A significant majority of teachers are posting content online; even those who haven't moved content to the web are certainly creating presentations and the days of mimeographed, hand-written exams are long gone. Countless textbooks now come with supplemental materials on CD, DVD, or the Web that teachers happily incorporate into their lectures (do you know how many high school students can listen to 80 minutes of straight lecture? None, zero, zip, zilch, negatory) and present to their classes.

Of course, now we also have countless data points flowing in from standardized exams, online exams the kids can take, instant feedback mechanisms in class, and so on. Ideally, teachers would have a means to deal with these data and make instructional decisions based on them (you know, the whole "data-driven instruction" thing everyone keeps rambling on about).

Could all of this be handled on a cheap desktop or even a thin client with a helpful system admin willing to load up content on the terminal servers? Sure it could. However, it's the rare teacher who puts in his or her 7 hour day and then goes home for a night of rest and relaxation, relishing the 9 short months during which he or she gets overpaid. Rather, teachers have lives and kids of their own, they coach sports, they run clubs, they take classes, and they spend a lot of hours preparing for classes the next day. A portable computer allows some degree of work-life balance (or at least a chance to put together tomorrow's PowerPoints while they are on a bus headed to an away game with their sports team).

Shared rooms and roaming teachers require portable computing and the stereotypical smoke-filled teachers' lounge is now a place for staff to congregate with their laptops and prepare materials and curriculum together.

Yes, they really all do need laptops. They don't need to be Alienwares or MacBook Airs, but they need to move from place to place with at least a couple of hours of battery life. Do they directly benefit students? Absolutely, in many, many ways.

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