Laptops are quickly joining mobile phones in the ranks of technology we can't live without. David Berlind refers to this sort of thing as "Dead Finger Tech," the pieces of technology that you could only pry from our cold dead fingers. I probably spend a fair amount more time with my laptop than I do with my wife. Nothing against my wife - she's fabulous. However, I use my laptop continuously for everything from presentations for my students to administering our network to writing this blog. I'm a student as well, so it comes out of its bag the minute I get to my evening classes. I was home sick the other day and one of the servers at my school went down. While laptop initiatives are not without merit, the scarcity of ed tech funding makes them very hard to justify. That fabulous wife of mine brought me my beloved laptop and I fixed the problem remotely from bed, even in a haze of decongestants. Pseudoephedrine and RDP must be some of the greatest inventions of the 20th century.
Students are also finding their laptops hard to live without. Laptops have been ubiquitous at universities for some time, but are now becoming commonplace among students even here in little old Athol, Mass. They aren't just toys, either, although they certainly do facilitate mobile MySpace postings. In general, the students who have laptops report that they are more productive and have an easier time completing assignments since they always have a computer available to them. Here in Athol, we've significantly increased the number of workstations available to students, but you can't beat having your own workstations with you all the time. The students with laptops frequently become leaders of cooperative learning projects in class as well since they can easily do research, prepare papers and presentations, and otherwise contribute to their groups more effectively. I'm sure there is a bit of a bias in this observation since the students with laptops also tend to be fairly high achievers. This is hardly universal, though, and plenty of mediocre students are finding that their experience in and out of class is improved by having a PC with them.
As I write this, I realize that my post sounds like a "laptops for everyone" argument. It's not. I'm a firm believer in well-placed, lifecycle-funded labs to really maximize utilization of scarce resources. Student laptops, for example, often sit dormant during classes where their use might be distracting or inappropriate, while our computer labs are used virtually every period of every day. Teachers report that if we could add extra labs, they'd use those, too. While laptop initiatives are not without merit, the scarcity of ed tech funding makes them very hard to justify.
What would be useful, though, is making educational discounts and leasing options available to students. We get substantial discounts on hardware and software and financing options that are unobtainable for most people. We've moved to a leasing model for the majority of our equipment to lower acquisition costs and keep new technology in the schools. Students and their parents could certainly benefit from this model, and many students who might not otherwise be able to afford a laptop might have much better luck with a more affordable lease, spreading the cost over three or four years of high school. Similarly, public-private partnerships could potentially subsidize these leases, further reducing the cost for students who can't afford the lease.
Again, I'm not saying we should provide a laptop for everyone or that every student could benefit from their own laptop. However, making these resources available to as many students as possible and allowing them to take advantage of the public sector discounts and financing that we receive could be a real boon for students preparing for careers and further education in the 21st century.