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For the Love of Laptops

As learning tools, tablets don’t cut it.

This isn’t my first time at the rodeo. I led professional development in the world’s first two laptop schools 22 years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve helped schools across the globe go one-to-one, most recently a Korean international school where every K–12 student has a laptop. From the beginning, one-to-one computing wasn’t about arithmetic—it was about stance. The pioneering schools recognized that traditional approaches were failing to amplify children’s potential. Personal computing was a provocation. It placed unprece­dented agency in the lap of the learner and tore down hierarchical school structures that had been in place since the Middle Ages. The laptop embodied a school’s commitment to realizing the dreams of John Dewey, Seymour Papert, and John Holt: to embrace learning-by-doing anytime, anyplace, unencumbered by the traditional curriculum or bell schedule. Giving laptops to children at a time when few executives had one was a statement that things need not be as they always have been.

Propelled by chutzpah and a sense of wonder, the early laptop schools were not sure how things would change as a result of personal computing but that change was both ­eagerly awaited and embraced. Matters such as class size took on a new urgency when 20 or more projects were under way at the same time. Teachers’ curriculum needed to be reorganized and the schedule changed to support maximum time for interdisciplinary project work. Furniture and even architecture needed to respond to the changes in students’ work habits. Parents reported that kids were spending countless hours programming and that their work exceeded the curriculum’s low expectations. Teachers marveled at the abilities of their students and were challenged to grow at a similar pace. There was a consensus among educators that they were part of something great. They were on the right side of history.

While some educators are excited to use computers to teach what we’ve always wanted kids to know, my work has been guided by a desire to help kids learn and do in ways and in knowledge domains that were otherwise inaccessible. Computing, the act of using a computer to make things—programs, novels, art, video, robots—is the game changer.

From the beginning, there was an inevitability to one-to-one computing. It’s sad that we are still debating the merits of such student empowerment two decades later.

There is much to admire about the iPad (and its imitators). I love mine. I watch TV on it. It’s light and small, and it has great battery life. In a classroom, the iPad’s profile ensures eye contact with the teacher, if that’s important to you. My 96-year-old grandmother uses an iPad without any district-funded PD. The iPad is a heckuva computer. Too bad Apple prohibits computing on the iPad.

As a result of misguided marketing decisions, not science or engineering, the iPad can’t do the things I most value in a computer for learners. Apple disallows the creation of executable files, meaning that you can’t make anything that may be used elsewhere. The most powerful form of computing, programming, is verboten. Robotics is impossible. Filmmaking is theoretically possible, but I suggest you go first.

The business model of selling software for the iPad is such that the best educational developers can’t afford to create iPad apps. There may never be constructive software of the caliber of MicroWorlds or HyperStudio available for tablets. Apple even disallowed Scratch, the free multimedia authoring software used by millions of kids.

“App” is a diminutive word. Apps do simple things reliably. Learning requires more complexity, flexibility, and room to grow. You don’t want your alarm clock to be creative or your map to be inventive, but you want kids to be. The laptop is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows kids to do what adults imagine and so much more.

The iPad is a consumption device. Sure, you can use it for Web browsing, video-watching, or note-taking, but the laptop affords a much greater range of expressive possibilities. Apple’s embrace of digital textbooks reinforces a quaint view of education that transfers agency from learners to publishers. The tools for creating e-books, such as iBooks Author, require Macs, but the laptop cannot read the books it creates, forcing schools to choose between textbooks and computing. Apple has made it clear that education is about content delivery and testing, no longer about the power to be your best.

Schools are buying tablets with a reckless ferocity. There are pronouncements of how iPads will revolutionize or transform education, without a coherent vision of what that might look like or a single example rooted in practice. The iPad provides an illusion of modernity with no real challenge to the nature of schooling—a win-win proposition unless you’re a child. Add hysterical Web filtering, social media bans, and locked-down devices incapable of installing software, and the tablet becomes a tool of compliance, not empowerment.

Tablets could have all the functionality of a laptop, but they don’t. Until they do, I recommend that schools invest in laptops for student use.

—Gary Stager is a frequent keynote speaker and former Pepperdine University professor.

—Winter 2013—

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