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© 1997 (Australia) Computelec Australia, Ltd. & (USA) Gary S. Stager

Kids with Laptops - The Antidote to Educational Computing
A Commentary by Gary S. Stager

Forward to the Past

A small part of my 1970s high school education was quite wonderful. A smart adult got a hold of a mainframe timeshare computer and several terminals for student use. His approach was, “have fun, see what you can figure out and lock up when you are done.” I got to school early to use the computer, spent my lunch hour in the computer room (the lab idea had not been invented yet) and stayed after school programming long after most of the teachers had gone home. If you are imagining a group of socially isolated nerds, you could not be more wrong. The high school computing environment provided one of the richest, most collaborative learning experiences of my life.

The absence of curriculum, testing and teacher surveillance contributed to a learning culture in which we invented nearly everything we knew about computers and solving problems. There were few manuals, no software and no home computers. We constantly challenged one another and ourselves. We ran after-school classes to teach other kids to program. We learned persistence through debugging and working on one project for months.

I made my own computer games and a primitive email system. I played the games designed by friends. Every discovery led to new questions and problems to solve. Eventually we had a few terminals with acoustic couplers and an original TRS-80 Model One available for use to take home over weekends and holidays. I remember the excitement of gathering my family around to see my program and have the computer crash after 45 minutes of loading the program from a cassette tape.

We felt invincible. There was no problem we could not solve. We not only fell in love with programming, but with learning too. Bill Gates had a similar experience in an independent school 3,000 miles away. Had our teachers decided that the computers should be used in the “educational” fashion common in schools today, we would have run out of the room screaming - never to return again.

The 1980s and 90s saw schools consumed by the idiotic notion of computer literacy. Computers would come to be used to teach a very small set of business computing skills to children with little use for them. Make no mistake, what can be done in a computer lab is precisely what can be accomplished in a computer lab. Even the best teachers find themselves designing activities which may be completed in 22 minutes, or less if every kid must touch the keyboard. After nearly two decades of computer literacy, few kids are more literate and even fewer can compute.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is at work. Schools satisfied with occasional computer literacy excursions to the computer lab will never need additional computers. Teachers who hand drill-and-practice software to students to use on the computer in the back of the room never need to embrace technology as an instrument of their own learning.

I’ve spent the past fifteen years trying to recapture the spirit and learning found in my high school computer room. The use of laptops by children in some Australian schools affords children with the unprecedented freedom to learn in and out of the classroom.

Laptops - An Obvious Solution

The implementation of laptops in schools, begun in 1989 by MLC and the Queensland Ministry of Education, was based on a few obvious truths:

  • Computers would continue to be smaller, cheaper and more powerful
  • Society is being altered dramatically by the widespread proliferation of microcomputers
  • Computers may be used by children to me more creative, expressive and collaborative
  • PC means personal computing - a place where you store your work and thoughts
  • The richest way for schools to use computers is based on the ideas of Seymour Papert and constructivism

Such initiatives would be immediately interpreted by many of my American colleagues as pilot projects or research experiments. Pioneering Australian schools committed to the idea of personal computing for all students. All of the planning, implementation and professional development were focused on realizing success.

Laptop schools are clearly on the right-side of history. These schools are confronting the challenges and opportunities of the communications age head-on. It is arrogant of the education community to suggest that computers won’t have as dramatic impact on schooling as it has on the rest of society.

Seymour Papert describes two categories of ways in which computers may be used in education, instructionism and constructionism. The instructionist views learning as the ability to recall facts transferred to you by a human being or computer program. Content is valued over context. Someone far away from the child has decided what is important for all children to know. Drill-and-practice and some tool software typifies this approach.

The constructionist views learning as the personal process of constructing knowledge. People learn because there exists a need or context for learning something new. Learning most easily occurs through the act of making something - whether that is a connection, sculpture, song, poem, conversation or computer program. Each learner is central to the learning process. MicroWorlds and other versions of Logo exemplify the constructionist approach to learning with computers.

I view the two acceptable ways in which schools use computers as: 1) to do work; and 2) to learn with. There is nothing at all wrong with using a computer to write, publish, research and increase productivity. However, the goal of school should not be increased productivity, but rather to develop the habits of mind leading to a lifetime of joyful learning. Doing work should be the secondary focus of school computing.

Anytime, Anywhere Any_??_

You’ve all heard the hype. Laptops allow kids to learn anytime, anywhere... The piece of the puzzle left out by the salesmen, politicians and many educators is what should kids be doing with the laptops. Even educators who have successfully used laptops in their classrooms tend to gloss over the ways in which they use them when asked to report on their experiences. The educational function of the laptops too often takes a backseat to the euphoria over laptop ownership.

Even today, magazine articles and conference papers scream out stories announcing that Upper Toowoomba Lower School Got Computers! In the next issue is another breathless article announcing that Lower Toowoomba Upper School Purchased Computers. There is a gee-whiz quality to the discussion of computers in education that probes little more than the superficial fact that a particular school bought a handful of computers. Buying laptops may even get you a mention on television by Bill Gates! Manufacturers are allowed to get away with claiming credit for the success of hard-working educators. Isn’t it about time that we get over ourselves and get busy?

I hesitate to refer to the little computers as notebooks because unimaginative educators have taken the term literally. This is why you hear such hyperbolic discussions of kids word processing their way to wisdom. The ad copy often suggests that kids can write anywhere, anytime and then print out their work later. This is an expensive high-tech version of 1) write a few drafts in pencil; 2) write a final draft in pen; 3) get your Dad’s secretary to type the report.

Word processing is a major innovation. I know of no person who ever word processed, decided it was a bad idea and went back to pencil and paper. I’m using it to write this article. However, word processing is a purely mechanical act. Sure, it can enhance the writing process due to the ease of editing. It does not teach anything and has only one function - the application of symbols to paper. I teach five year-olds and graduate students to word process in 5 minutes. Type some letters and press the backspace key when you mess up. OK now, saving and printing. In the hands of a skillful technology teacher word processing may consume a nine year scope and sequence followed by a VCE course.

Writing is a rich, creative and expressive intellectual act. If owning a laptop somehow managed to quadruple the writing output of a student, it still would not justify the investment of $2,000 per student. The amount of database and spreadsheet work done by a typical child adds about $7 more to the value of the computer. If all you expect of your students is that they will use a computer to take notes, then $200 mobile word processors and PDAs exist already.

This is but one of the reasons why Apple Computer’s new eMate is such a profoundly bad idea. Children need better technology than adults, not worse. What volume of writing do we expect kids to do that requires an expensive machine for storage? Proponents of devices like the eMate tell us that they are “thin clients.” Corporations use “thin clients,” small single-purpose computers to collect data and designed to share that data with a larger network of computers at a later time. Schools are not businesses and don’t have MIS department employed to keep the systems operational or have at least one full-featured computer per worker. Children using “thin clients” like the eMate will write a few paragraphs and then go back to school where they need to somehow connect the device to the one Commodore 64 with dot matrix printer in the classroom. The eMate is hardly a computer. It is an electronic note pad.

Children need computers versatile enough to follow their imaginations and expectations. Schools need teachers who will use computers in imaginative ways designed to benefit children.

It’s the Software Stupid!

If the primary goal of education is, as John Dewey states, growth, then along with the implementation of laptops one should expect that the school will “grow.” The expense of purchasing laptops, providing infrastructure and offering professional development should be justified by the expectation that every element of traditional schooling (curriculum, assessment, scheduling and the role of teachers) should be called into question. In the best settings, laptops provide schools with not only a window on the future, but also a microscope on the past. Past practices and even content are called into question. This provides a rare opportunity to make schools better places to learn, for teachers as well as students.

In my opinion, the success and acclaim associated with the use of laptops in Australian schools is directly related to the constructionist goals of those schools. The choice and use of specific software, LogoWriter and now MicroWorlds, is responsible for much of the well-deserved attention Australian “laptop schools” have enjoyed. Thoughtful and widespread use of software, like MicroWorlds, justifies the investment in a laptop.

MicroWorlds represents the latest generation of constructive software for kids developed by Seymour Papert, the Father of Logo. With one piece of software children are able to animate historical events, “mess-about” with concepts on the frontiers of mathematics, compose music, present multimedia reports, illustrate poetry, design their own video games and much more. The best thing about MicroWorlds is that it often allows students to employ strategies associated with different disciplines to be used at once. It is precisely the computational and extensible nature of MicroWorlds that leads to such powerful personal learning.

MicroWorlds was designed to have no threshold and no ceiling. Five year-old John Richardson uses MicroWorlds to animate his fantasy play and recreate computer games. Josie Hopkins’ senior school science students use MicroWorlds to build genetic and physics simulations. Countless other children employ their creativity and ingenuity while using MicroWorlds to satisfy aspects of the curriculum. 24-hour access to personal laptops allow children to learn outside the lines of the curriculum. MicroWorlds offers learners a rich intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self expression.

Laptop ownership allows students to go beyond the expectations of the school schedule by giving their MicroWorlds project the time they deserve. Kids frequently learn a great deal by creating MicroWorlds projects of their own design on their own time.MicroWorlds supports the growth of schools in the following ways:


  • The best MicroWorlds projects are open-ended and child-centered. This challenges our traditional notions of school work and scheduling.
  • Teachers will observe all sorts of serendipitous connections made between subject areas while students work with MicroWorlds. This provides an opportunity for serious consideration of interdisciplinary learning.
  • Student learning with MicroWorlds tends to be collaborative and social.
  • Teachers may rekindle their passion for personal learning by learning with MicroWorlds alongside their students.
  • Teachers are reminded that less is more. Kids learn a great deal more in the act of making something than by meeting countless decontextualized curriculum objectives.
  • Work tends to exist in new forms and lives on the screen, rather than on paper.
  • New types of projects require new forms of assessment.
  • Class size matters when students are working on twenty or more different projects simultaneously.
  • Fluency with computers is best achieved when students are able to create all sorts of work in one software environment.

Every time I lead children or teachers in a MicroWorlds project I am struck by the excitement, passion and purposeful effort exhibited by the learners. In the hands of a great teacher, MicroWorlds affords a wide variety of learners an opportunity to succeed in their own voice.

Some of you are probably thinking to yourself, “Hyperstudio or Toolbook satisfies the same educational objectives as MicroWorlds.” I can not disagree more vigorously. While Hyperstudio allows students to create wonderful presentations and book reports, that is all that it can do. Hyperstudio has cool multimedia elements in it, but it favors cutting and pasting over computation. Kids will spend a long time mastering Hyperstudio before they discover that it doesn’t do anything THEY want to do with a computer.

Multimedia Toolbook is too cumbersome and idiosyncratic to be used purposefully by more than a few select students. Schools concerned with teaching employable skills would be better served by teaching Director, mTropolis, Java or modern programming languages.

Neither Hyperstudio or Toolbook are based on thirty years of research with kids or a desire to transform schooling. The types of simple hypermedia projects kids design with these packages would find a much larger audience if published on the web. In fact, MicroWorlds will generate simple web pages too.

To Tool or Not to Tool?

I have serious concerns about the future viability of schools that favor business productivity software over constructive software designed specifically for children. The conservatism inherent in such an approach may fortify the status quo and do little qualitatively different to make schools better.

Much of what schools do with “tool “ software is designed to teach specific aspects of the software itself or to satisfy a narrow curriculum requirement. Such activities should be questioned. Many topics are made irrelevant by computers or may be better addressed without them. It takes a great dose of imagination to use an integrated package in a new way. Such tools were designed to do one or two things very well.

The current love affair with presentation software stalls personal expression at a very primitive stage. Many student “slide shows” require no more writing than an outline and have all of the individuality possible from clip-art. Bulleted presentations are great for selling cars or providing visual cues during a long speech, but do little to inform. Presentations are but one form of communication. Students should use them where appropriate.

My strong comments regarding the adoption of software by schools, particularly laptop schools, is in response to the absence of such advocacy in other forums. School leaders often believe in the myth of software hierarchy. First we will learn Office and then maybe our teachers will be ready to use student-centered software such as MicroWorlds. There is absolutely no merit to this sort of thinking. Teachers are employed to enhance the learning of children, not perform additional clerical tasks.

It is just as easy for a teacher to learn about computers while using software designed for children as it is for them to learn business software. It takes a small miracle for most teachers to make the leap from using tool software for personal purposes to finding constructive ways to employ open-ended software with their students. Students are ready to use child-centered construction environments from the start.

The Cure for Software DuJour

Software DuJour is the last refuge of scoundrels. Teachers reluctant to use computers often clamor for newer or additional software. This strategy is often employed successfully to disguise their own inaction. Do not be fooled! In my opinion, students need two pieces of software installed on their laptops, MicroWorlds for open-ended learning and an integrated package for doing work.

More extravagant schools might also wish to invest in an Internet browser (free), email client (free) and modem for each student machine. Schools should not even attempt to provide remote Internet access from outside of school. You are educational institutions not telecoms. Groups of schools should negotiate with Internet Service Providers (ISP) for discount family access. School information and resources can be available via the World-Wide-Web regardless of your current location. Students can get personal email accounts via the ISP. Teacher email accounts should be accessible on any machine connected to the Internet anywhere.

The most ambitious schools will add specialized discipline-based tools such as Geometers’ Sketchpad, Interactive Physics or Microcomputer-based Lab software where appropriate. Professional educators in individual departments should be responsible for selecting appropriate software and hardware. It is preposterous for members of the I.T. department to dictate the needs of the science or art departments.

Some of the finest uses of laptops involve the combination of MIDI synthesizers and student laptops. Music is no longer a spectator sport. Children can now compose and perform music at a level of sophistication impossible just a few years ago.

In fact, we should judge the success of school technology use by how well it enables to students to enhance their current abilities. Sylvia Weir refers to the computer as an information prosthetic. Schools should use computers to explore domains of knowledge and the arts not possible with other media.

More Metaphors

In any discussion of school change, buzzwords abound. We hear that “in the future” teachers will be facilitators, “guides on the side,” and coaches. What’s wrong with teachers being recognized as teachers? Medicine has changed in countless ways over the centuries, yet the practitioners are still called doctors.

Our leaders predict that future teachers may actually walk around the room and see what the kids are doing. Imagine that! The best teachers do more than feign interest in student work and pretend not to have the answer to their question in the back of their teachers guide. Great teachers, today and in the future, get on the floor with students and genuinely together to solve problems. The rich variety of learning challenges made possible by laptops and the limitless information of the Internet makes this especially true.

At the risk of appearing hypocritical I would like to offer a new metaphor for those of you who can’t survive without a new term for teacher. Allow me to suggest the metaphor of “teacher as learning producer.” All sorts of media and communications businesses employ producers. The producer supervises workers, assembles the best teams, organizes materials and provides the support necessary to ensure the best work possible from her colleagues.

Professional Development by Memo

Professional educators should be expected to use professional tools. Computers are professional tools. Schools have a responsibility support for these expectations. I am often asked how to get teachers to use computers. I am inpatient with the question since I believe in the professionalism and and competence of teachers. I also understand that schools do not always make expectations clear or provide adequate support. It is often as easy as asking teachers to use computers in their classrooms to get the ball rolling.

It is extremely difficult to get teachers to do new things, especially if you never ask them to. It should seem obvious, but it is not uncommon for teachers to ignore hundreds of laptops if they are never asked (or expected) to use them during their classes. On the other hand, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to dedicate the extra effort required to use computer technology if they lack adequate access. How many after school workshops should teachers attend before they can get a printer ribbon or extra six minutes of lab time during this calendar year. I am sure that other articles in this book addressed the importance of ensuring that teachers have access to laptops.

My experience suggests that immersive professional development workshops provide the richest opportunities for teacher learning. Such multi-day events allow teachers to experience what is like to learn in an open-ended project-based collaborative environment. However, no one form of professional development works for every teacher. A wide variety of professional development opportunities need to be offered on an ongoing basis. Innovative teachers should be rewarded with in-school sabbaticals during which time they can mentor colleagues in classroom settings. Teacher learning is life-long too and requires opportunities for the continuing development of skills and expanding visions.

The major obstacles to systemic computer-use are the result of educational complacency, not technology. John Dewey knew everything we know today about education one hundred years ago. Professional development focused on the timeless issues of curriculum, assessment, cooperative learning, child-centered learning and the teacher/student relationship makes technology integration make sense. Child-friendly classrooms are technology-friendly too.

(More detailed information about professional development and leadership for laptop teachers may be found in the references).

One last suggestion deals with staffing. If every teacher is expected to use computers in constructive ways, then there is no need for lots of technology specialists and coordinators. The creation of this new bureaucratic level strains financial resources, discourages teachers from taking ownership and insulates school administrators from making important educational decisions.

While it is certainly important to reward teacher initiative, schools make a serious mistake when assigning specific software expertise to one teacher. It is counterproductive to announce that Mr. X is the new Word coordinator and Ms. Q is the robotics expert. This only serves to keep knowledge in a few different heads and is especially troublesome in computing since things change so quickly. Switching software packages or versions becomes a personnel issue rather than a simple change in software. Expertise should be shared.


I am enormously proud to have been associated with the wonderful Australian educators who are inventing the future one laptop at a time. Their students have a warmer feeling towards school and have created work of uncommon quality. The challenge for the future is finding a way to make laptop use more universal in each school. There are still far too many teachers hiding in the rest area on the information superhighway. The innovations enjoyed by these schools need to be institutionalized and less dependent on the strength of one or two individuals.

A salute you as you embark on this exciting adventure and look forward to collaborating with you in the future. Please share your learning stories with me online!

Gary S. Stager
Pepperdine University

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