What good are laptops in the classroom?

When a high school handed out laptops, response was tepid. Then administrators got serious and developed applications and services. The jury is still out but participation is certainly improved.

Are laptops are an indispensable tool for high schoolers or merely an overpriced paperweight? That's the question that a Washington, D.C. area high school pondered before investing in services to make laptops more useful, reports The Washington Post.

Several years ago, every student at T.C. Williams High received a 3.5 pound wireless laptop computer. But many students weren't using them. The fact that many students left the laptops at home was due in part to teachers not knowing how to integrate them into the lessons.

"My daughter and most of her friends, they don't find it to be useful at all," said board member Scott Newsham, who was elected in spring and is the father of a T.C. Williams student. "I think the decision was made to bring computers into the school system before they really knew what they were going to be doing with them."

The problem was that not only did teachers not know how to use them efficiently, but also there were few services to make them indispensable. In response, Mel Riddile, an award-winning administrator at the high school, initiated services such as linking laptops to electronic textbooks, classroom projectors and other academic tools, extending library hours and implementing Blackboard, which allows students to use their laptops to participate in class discussions, organize work, take tests and check assignments. Teacher training has been emphasized, as well.

"I think they made the realization that they may have put the cart before the horse," said G.A. Hagen, a technology resource teacher at T.C. Williams. "It was like, 'Okay, teacher, here's the laptop -- go with it,' and [teachers] were like, 'What do you mean, go with it? Is there a Web site I go to?' "

Although there are still many tasks that are better performed on a piece of paper, many classrooms having gone almost entirely wireless. For example, in one physics lap, Excel spreadsheets have replaced graph paper, and students use the laptops to continue classroom discussions after the bell rings.