Laptops offer a whole new, improved realm of learning for students. By their very nature, they make all lessons interactive, keeping students engaged in the learning process. They can provide instant feedback and assistance, and serve as a source for limitless new knowledge. With proper supervision, the laptop driven classroom can be the ideal environment for any learner.
Laptops can put education directly into the hands of the students. With each student (or pairs of students) working at their own pace, they can complete, review, and repeat tasks as necessary for their understanding. Teachers can create interactive lessons, or direct students to learning resources that already exist (web sites, CD/DVD media, etc.). Traditional resources, such as texts and movies, easily roll over onto the computer screen, sharing the spotlight with more novel flash activities and educational games.
Many programs and activities offer immediate grading/scoring, providing students with the instantaneous satisfaction of knowing they did a good job. Conversely, it can also tell them when they need a vast amount of practice, and gives them the chance to hone their skills before moving onwards without a proper understanding of the topic, warding off future confusion and misconceptions. Better still, the immediate scoring lets students compare and compete with their friends and peers. Some programs even allow students to see their rankings compared to the entire school, or even the world.
It has always been impossible for a teacher to be everywhere at once, though heaven knows we try. A laptop cannot do away with that need, but it can help alleviate the burden, as some questions are easily answered with instantaneous, computerized help. Help menus and FAQ’s exist to deal with the most routine questions, keeping the teacher’s need to address them down to a minimum. They also help to build a student’s self-reliance, as they realize that they can find answers on their own. Tools such as spell check and grammar check also help, not only in constructing well-written documents, but also in learning the proper spelling and usage of grammar (provided the students actually pay attention to the corrected versions). Students appreciate not losing points for improper punctuation (and no longer have an excuse when they do).
Research becomes more efficient, and supplemental information is readily available for those topics that spark interest in individual learners. Web resources exist on most any topic. People author pages on things that interest them (though a verification of these “facts” is sometimes necessary). Most professional journals are available online, and schools can subscribe to the most relevant ones. Universities and professional organizations are listed online, and it is possible to contact an expert in any field directly. (Some value interaction with curious minds, others ignore inquiries, but the only way to know is by asking.) Many local libraries are online now as well, so a student can locate and reserve library resources without having to wander the library, saving homework time that could be better spent actually studying those resources.
The biggest caveat to bringing laptops into the classroom is the need for supervision. In a poorly managed class, students can easily become absorbed in surfing the web, chatting, playing games, or even hacking into the school’s network. It is necessary for the teacher to remain alert and involved with the classroom. Physically monitoring what the students are doing is helpful, though again, the limitation of not being able to be everywhere at once means that students can hide their inappropriate activities when the teacher is near. Computer controls are helpful tools as well. Filters can keep students away from inappropriate web content. Network access can be limited to those resources a teacher wants accessible. (There is no need to grant internet access when the files are all on the local server.) External drives can be disabled, and write access limited, to prevent students from installing their own games and software on the system. In short, there are many control options available.
More important than control, however, is accountability. Control is built around the idea that the students are going to try to do what they aren’t supposed to. Creating barriers to inappropriate activities does not stop the students from trying, and they can be quite adept at finding ways to subvert the system. In fact, creating barriers to “the fun stuff” only poses a challenge to the students, who then take pleasure in finding a way to beat the system. The answer to this is to instill a sense of accountability in the students. The teacher (and parents too) need to let the students know that ultimately, their education is in their hands, and that it is up to them to make the best use of their school time. Providing learning goals can help in this matter. Software that allows students to track their progress is a motivator in this matter as well. If parents can monitor it as well, so much the better. Imagine their interest when they see that their child has completed 46% of the work with proficiency when the class average is 67%. Or imagine how pleased they will be, and the rewards they may lavish, when their child is leading that same group of students, with 78%. While rewards in the classroom can often backfire, the knowledge that work invested at school truly does impact their lives outside of school can be a strong motivator indeed. The choice to make the most of their school time will always lay with the students, as it always has.
Laptops offer great potential benefits to the classroom. As a learning tool, they are versatile and potent. Always, always remember, however, that they are only a tool, and have to be used properly, lest they be abused. Also remember that no one teaching tool is better than a combination of teaching tools. If you have laptops available, by all means use them and use them well. Just don’t use them exclusively, or you do your students a disservice. Not all of life is conducted on a computer, and neither should be all learning.