New York Times "Laptops in Schools" Article Backstory


I am Mark Warschauer, and I was quoted in the New York Times article Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops that was discussed on OLPC News.

There seem to be some misconceptions about (a) the New York Times article, (b) my comments in the New York Times article, and (c) the role of laptops in K-12 schools. I'll address each of these briefly in turn.

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First, a number of people are taking the New York Times article as evidence that lots of schools are abandoning laptop programs. I've examined laptop programs across the country and haven't found that to be the case.

Rather, lots of districts are expanding laptop programs every year, and very small numbers of laptop programs are being scaled back--and almost always due to financial difficulties rather than questions about laptops' educational value. Indeed the New York Times reporter looked all over the country and couldn't come up with much beyond one school in New York (as an example of abandoning a program that wasn't meeting expectations.)

Second, as to my quotes, I was not suggesting that students do not learn with laptops, or that only privileged students learn with laptops, or that students only learn independently with laptops. I believe students of diverse levels learn a great deal with laptops, and that what they learn is very important, and that it place as part of classroom instruction, but that it just isn't measured well by today's standardized tests.

That's a problem with the tests (which are almost always done with paper and pencil over limited time, and focus on multiple choice questions or brief timed essays), rather than with technology-enhanced learning. Third, somebody brought up a reasonable point that computers may be valuable for education, but just not in classrooms.

That may (or may not) be true in a higher education settings, when students spend limited time in classrooms and do most of their serious work outside of class (and almost all have access to computers and high-speed Internet access for their out-of-class studies).

But in K-12 instruction, students are actually in classrooms for the strong majority of their weekly study time, and K-12 students have inconsistent access to computers and high-speed Internet access outside of class, so the relative value of computers inside the classroom changes.

All this refers to laptops in U.S. schools. I'll hold off commenting on the OLPC project for now.

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"but that it just isn't measured well by today's standardized tests."

Do you know of any other test that might be more suitable to measure results of computer learning or constructivistic learning?

Having meaningful tests seems very important for the assessment of the revolutionary new learning styles proposed by OLPC and others.
Is there not testing done so far because there are no suitable test methods?
Who has experience for the development of new test methods?

Maybe it's too simplistic, but how about the rate of acceptance in college (and what college)? Performance during first year in college? Those numbers can be easily obtained over the years (I have done it and NSF funding us was actually quite please with them).

This may work better with high school students, because closer to college. Nevertheless...

I hate to break it to you Mark but the failure of computers in public education is hardly news. Computers have been eluding the promise that everyone seems to be sure exists for the last, oh, thirty or thirty-five years.

A really newsworthy story would be the brilliant success of computers in raising the scores of the kids in (insert name of lousy, urban school district here). Maybe with the resources of the New York Times you could find this particular unicorn because it's been pretty darned elusive so far.

It'd probably be helpful if there were some agreement, or even some coherence, to the role computers are supposed to play in education but alas, there isn't.

There seems to be a generalized feeling that computers can make education better without changing it too drastically. Teachers will still be at the front of the classroom, the principals in their offices, the district administration in their digs and presiding over the unchanged and unchanging school district will be, as now, the school board. Doesn't sound like the makings of a revolution, does it?

What I see every time we face the issue of how to ‘measure’ the results or impacts of the potential implementation of thousands of laptops in the educational setting is a deep disbelieve coming from the Ministry of Education. It is truly a reasonably doubt because we are inserted in a ‘culture of measurement’ where every single aspect of a public policy must be evaluated. However, in this case I think we don’t have the right instruments to measure the achievement of computer skills in a broader sense.

The thing is, we should increasingly consider the attainment of computer skills including gaming, chatting and other apparently useless practices as being part of a set of broader digital competences that empower kids and further prepare them for the so-called information society. In other words, those apparently worthless skills must be treated as a gain regardless our subjective assessment.

Here is the key point: If kids learn how to command ‘all the secrets’ of these machines they become more confident. And if that happens, good things can be triggered. For example, a 2006 OECD study shows that students more confidents get better results in basic literacy and mathematical skills. See graph:

So my point is, as we continue moving towards a new paradigm, old ways of assessment become problematic. We should certainly apply standard test but we should not be slaves of them. We have to move beyond this ‘Testocracy’ because in many cases it may be the direct cause of the lack of an OLPC –style public policy .

Greetings from Chile,


Luis, I agree with you that we need to consider competence with computers as part of the new set of skills have to acquire. As part of these skills, the need to differentiate between the "noise" and the real information is too quite important, and very difficult as long as there is not enough good info available for specific demands in developing nations.

The testing debate is probably more complex, but sometime in the future, someone will come with some new ideas, not just methods to assess but mostly new approaches to fully evaluate the educational process.

Till then, computers are going to be problematic and disruptive, not because of themselves, but mostly due to the tensions they create among the declared goals of education and the actual achievements they allow.

Food for thought, indeed.

There have been many discussions about school test results. The basic problems are that school tests sample knowledge acquired.

As a result their are several questions:
- Do the tests sample the knowledge adequately? In learning for the test, the test is not a sample anymore, but the whole of the knowledge.

- Is the knowledge adequate? Have the right things been learned?

- Is what has been learned actually used outside school? This transfer can be as low as 10%. In learning for the test, the children tend to forget everything right after the test.

The introduction of computers can affect all of these questions. Theoretically, you might increase the test scores, but decrease the transfer even more. Or the reverse.


Mark, your book, Technology and Social Inclusion is by far my favorite on the role of ICTs in development, and I hope that you'll speak directly to the OLPC project soon, as they seem to be (and indeed, my biggest gripe) ignoring the important roles of society (teachers and communities), and focusing on deployment of the technology, a "device" strategy, not even an ongoing "conduit" (except in cases where the Internet may be available, the bitfrost anti-theft system is conduit-like), and seemingly nothing beyond.

(Is your hush on the subject indicative of a new book?)