Earlier 'Laptops for Learning' program disappointed, officials say

rheaton@islandpacket.comMarch 9, 2013 

The iPad program the Beaufort County School District started this school year is not the first attempt to acclimate public-school students to technology by putting it directly into their hands.

The district took a similar approach with laptop computers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Laptops for Learning," launched in 1996, aspired to close a perceived "digital divide" between students by allowing them to take all tests and complete all class work on the computers. Students could get the laptops in middle school and keep them through graduation.

By 1999, only 45 of the 280 students in the pilot group said they were still carrying their laptops. By 2003 -- the year many of those students graduated -- there was no data on how many students still used the laptops.

And the district was never able to clearly demonstrate how the technology affected student achievement.

Proponents said laptops brought better presentation of reports and projects, greater student access to research materials, and a better understanding of technology.

But even proponents conceded these benefits were difficult to quantify.

Similarly, supporters of the iPad program -- and programs like it elsewhere -- say the tablets are boosting "engagement" among students, helping teach "21st-century skills" and making teachers more efficient.

But as with laptops, district officials say it will be difficult to say definitively whether the iPad program directly affects academic achievement because there are so many other factors which have a bearing.

Attempts were made to show the benefits of the laptop program. A four-year study by the University of South Carolina, for example, showed slightly improved test scores among students using the laptops, but researchers could not show a direct link between the two.

The study also reported that the longer a student was in the program, the less effective the laptop was, suggesting that outdated equipment, diminishing enthusiasm and less classroom support for laptop lessons derailed the program.

Times have changed, however, and the iPad program is not necessarily doomed to a similar fate, according to the district's former director of virtual learning.

Cory Tressler helped roll out the iPad project before leaving the district for another job in September. He said the 16-year gap between the start of the two programs make comparisons and predictions difficult.

Back then, for example, technology was not so widely distributed, and instruction still involved overhead projectors and chalkboards. Today, most of those teaching with the iPads have long incorporated computers into their lessons and have used interactive white boards for years.

"In the '90s, we were in the early era of laptops. Now we're almost into a post laptop environment. This is a whole different style of technology," Tressler said.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.

Related content:

Beaufort County school board passes budget that includes iPads, calls for tax hike, May 18, 2012

Tax increase could bring iPads to Beaufort County schools, May 14, 2012

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