1:1 laptop programs are a great enthusiasm of mine; in my 21 school visits I undertook last year, in most cases those schools with 1-1 programs seemed far further down the road of promoting quality 21st century learning environments.  This is not a casuality — it is not because they had a 1-1 program in itself that made them so, but because they had a classroom culture of student inquiry, of research, collaboration, and on-line publishing, all of which were well supported by the laptops in students’ hands.

A valuable article in e-School News summarizes recent research in 1-1 programs, and among the most important conclusions is that the mere implementation of 1-1 laptops alone will not accomplish great learning gains; they need to be integrated into effective, contemporary, forward-looking, best-practices learning environments, one where teachers are serious about engaged, active, collaborative, and creative student learning.  “Laptop computers [would not be] technological tools; rather, [they would be] cognitive tools that are holistically integrated into the teaching and learning processes of their school.”

The article offers multiple cautions and the commonplace caveats: yes, schools need both to conduct infrastructure readiness assessments and to provide/support more faculty training and planning.  I am intrigued by a free readiness assessment survey tool provided for schools working in this direction , and intend to explore it further myself.

Of course all this is important, and before large and bureaucratic school districts spend literally millions on 1:1 programs, these must be essential steps.  But as I read some sections of this report, with all their fears and warnings, I have to declare: let’s not be too terribly deliberative and gradualist about this amazing opportunity to empower our students with these digital learning tools.   We have seen the future (I have seen it, at a bunch of schools), and we need to embrace it, not resist it.

One of the best sections of this article speaks right to this, as it advocates schools to bring the students to the table:

But it’s not just teachers who experts say must be involved in the 1-to-1 planning process—students should be, too. “Perhaps a backwards way of thinking by some accounts, we believe a ‘bottom-up’ approach is better than a ‘top-down,’” said Katie Morrow, technology integration specialist at O’Neill Public Schools in O’Neill, Neb.

“Put the technology in kids’ hands as early as possible and let them drive the initiative forward. Students should be involved on planning committees, tech support teams, and any visioning or research teams. Publish student projects early on, bring in visitors to see the possibilities in action rather than just talk about them, use students to share at community meetings, board meetings, and in any way possible. Students will push and promote the laptop’s application in their various courses much more effectively than an administrator forcing it upon an unwilling teacher.”

Really, this is brilliant; the notion of a bottom-up approach is exactly the way I view powerful and effective educational progress.  Rather than front-load reform with months or years of preparation, planning, documentation, training, organizing administrators, teachers, and systems, we need to go, put tools in kids’ hands, and ask them to use them, ask them to suggest more uses of them, empower and unleash them to LEARN with them.  (While holding them accountable for excellent outcomes!)

Morrow said that when the benefits are apparent beyond the school building, stakeholders are willing to support education—and students realize it’s not just about the grade at the end of the unit.

“Collecting data is important, but more important is collecting stories,” she explained. “Compile anecdotal evidence and interview students. Publish projects that evolve out of the students’ opportunity to have 21st-century access 24/7—as opposed to purely test scores and teacher-driven assignments. This culture can cultivate in an initiative where the learning is the focus, rather than the instruction.”

I am reminded of the great wisdom I read in a post a few months ago by the always-brilliant Peter Gow, a frequent writer and consultant for NAIS and for the wider world of independent education; here he is writing about his own’ school’s experience with pushing forward into the 1:1 world, without overly worrying the details, but taking a just-do-it approach. Clearly the laptops here are not an end in themselves, they are not supposed to be, by themselves, a revolution in learning, but they are incorporated into learning such that students have a more powerful pencil at their regular disposal.

We went the “bring your own route” this year, offering through a vendor a basic big Dell, a basic MacBook, and an Asus netbook for those who wanted to use our “student discount” but otherwise permitting anything on the system. We offered proportionate purchase assistance to high financial need families. It’s all about the Cloud, in particular Google Apps.

We beefed up the wireless and added more power outlets last year, laid on a couple of extra help desk folks for the start of the year, trained the faculty in a bunch of Web 2.0 stuff last year in in Google Apps over the summer, bought a few loaner netbooks for dire cases, and basically the transition to 1:1 has gone pretty much seamlessly, so far. We worked hard to explain to the constituents that the laptops are an integrated part of the teaching and learning and not a glitzy end in themselves, and by and large everyone was enthusiastic.

The public face of the program is at

Think buying or leasing hundreds of expensive machines that will become obsolete is a poor use of school funds, and playing platform favorites as an institution is now silly, as the world seems to speak PC and Mac with equal fluency and schools should, too. Many kids will already have their own, so why not focus on browser-based apps and let the families make their own hardware decisions? With the OS-agnostic, bring-your-own-hardware approach,the school doesn’t get stuck with having to fix stuff, just help with connectivity problems (mostly); it might even be that kids will take
better care of stuff bought with mom/dad/guardian hard-earned money than of a school supplied gadget.

Also think that sometimes the reluctance to go this way is a department or two that thinks it can’t live without this or that installed app, many of which are PC or Mac specific. But the world of browser-based applications is growing by leaps and bounds, and I wouldn’t let that deter the school from making an institutional decision that is ultimately better for all kids.