“The Laptops Are Coming! The Laptops Are Coming!”

What I am learning from my school's infatuation with computers

By Sarah Heller McFarlane

Illustrator: J. D. King

Illustration: J. D. King

When I first learned that all of my students were getting laptops, I thought it was an educator’s dream come true. One year later, I look at the situation differently. Like many progressive educators, I have regarded computers and other technology in schools as important tools to help students understand the world around them. I also hoped that providing all students with laptops would address the digital divide. But after an exhausting year, I have learned that before adopting the technology on a wide scale, it is essential for schools to first consider the potential promises and perils of using technology in the classroom. I believe that social justice educators must ask ourselves and our schools: What are the ethics and power structures involved in using a technology, and how do we create a learning environment to discuss and track the impact of technology on the cognitive, social and emotional development of both students and educators.

At first glance, my reservations about universal laptops for students may seem like a luxury only middle-class and wealthy districts can afford. However, this is a discussion about power: who has access to the technology; who profits and who loses from the enterprise; which relationships are valued and which marginalized; and who determines what knowledge matters, and how it should be learned? Universal access solves some problems, but presents new ones.

Conquering the Digital Divide

I work in an “exurb,” a quickly changing suburb in the first ring around Seattle, Wash. Our community represents a cross section of languages, cultures, and socioeconomic classes. Over 20 percent of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch; 2005, the last year that official statistics were released, 18 percent of students listed themselves as Asian, 7 percent as black, 6 percent as Hispanic, 66 percent as white, and 1.4 percent as American Indian/Alaskan Native. As an indication of how quickly our district is changing, in a fall 2006 survey, only 52 percent of students at my high school identified themselves as being European American. As of spring 2007, there were more than 68 languages represented in our English Language Learner (ELL) program.

When my district announced that all secondary students would get laptops to use all the time, all year, due to the passage of a $149.5 million technology levy, I was excited and nervous. While no home internet connection was provided, students could check out a phone-jack dial-up modem. My district was to join a growing trend in education, seeking to “prepare students for the 21st century” and address the digital divide through universal computer access. According to a New York Times story in May 2007, “. . . a study of the nation’s 2,500 largest school districts last year . . . found that a quarter of the 1,000 respondents already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011.”

When I realized that all of my students were getting laptops, I thought, “Fabulous! I can do amazing things with this.” I already had a website. But with the laptops, I could see more ways to incorporate technology into class projects: engage students with more music and visual literacy; “drop” a 1920s and ’30s art history PowerPoint onto my server, and every student could access, open, and analyze it; extend class discussions online, allowing quieter, contemplative students to have a voice. The possibilities were endless.

When I considered the coming of the computers, I thought what a difference the laptop-for-every-student program would have made for my former student Mark, a master poet, rapper, deep thinker, and highly ethical young man who moved to our district with few traditional academic skills. He, like many of our students, spent considerable energy and time simply gaining access to technology so that he could then begin the assigned work.

In the past year, I have seen the question of access all but resolved. My student Eduardo, a recent immigrant from Mexico, did not have a computer at home and had virtually no prior computer skills. He now navigates research sites within the University of Washington’s Digital Learning Commons, creates PowerPoint presentations, turns in assignments electronically, organizes a central storehouse for his electronic files (and iTunes, of course), and creates numerous other tech-based products (like a MySpace page). Such universal access and technology skill-building has felt like a success of the laptop program, and that is what many of us have spent years fighting for.

No Time to Think

As the year unfolded, however, I found myself more and more concerned about the use of technology in my school and district. For the first few weeks, I had difficulty analyzing what we were doing-we were in trainings in August, navigating the new hardware and software in September, changing our lessons in October, and I was swimming to keep up. There were spoken and unspoken expectations about how teachers should integrate technology into the classroom. The district mandated some things, such as professional development time, use of email, online attendance, grade entry and the substitute request program. Other areas of technology implementation were highly encouraged, such as websites for all teachers, posting grades online (both of which, a year later, are now required), and the use of various forms of technology in our classrooms. The district seemed to understand that we educators needed time to learn and change; they even hired and paid fellow teachers to help us more effectively use technology in our curriculum. So why was I frustrated?

At first, I thought it was the fatigue and “creep” factor. I know how exhausting it can be to learn another language as an adult, and in many ways, the technology integration process felt similar to language immersion. I also began to resent how much more information was “creeping” into my teaching world. Most forms of communication from the district were now in electronic form, with a huge number of attachments entering my computer daily. The expectation was that I read and respond to the information, and that if I didn’t, I didn’t care.

I was also frustrated over how staff spent time together. Staff development, already a precious and rare commodity, was now almost exclusively about technology. The district mandated several in-service days for technology training. We discussed technology hardware and software extensively, including how to catch kids playing Nintendo or “chatting” with each other, and how to use iCal and the Option keys. But there was a trade-off. This meant we were not discussing: whether our curriculum was relevant to students’ lives; who was getting suspended and why; how rapidly our community is changing; how we could make our school more inviting and useful for families; the implications of heavily increased screen time on students’ bodies; how computer-based learning might change how students process information and how they interact with others. And we weren’t talking much about ways technology could help or hinder us in our analysis of these questions, even after repeated requests to have this discussion.


But as I watched my classroom and school change, I realized there was something larger missing from our technology discussions. Sure, I was upset by the invasion of my teaching time; a great deal of my time and energy was now spent sitting in front of my computer. But I was also choosing to spend more time in front of the computer, because it was now an intrinsic part of
my curriculum and communication
with students, families, and faculty-and, frankly, because it was easy to get lost in the computer. I was spending (and still spend) between one and two hours a day reading, writing, and responding to email; 15-30 minutes updating my webpage; 15 minutes taking and checking online attendance; and time online to find research, music and radio commentary for my curriculum. I found I spent hours on the computer everyday, much of it when students were in the room (during breaks, in-class writing time, exams, lunch, etc.) Without realizing it, I became more disengaged from my students, losing critical relationship time.

Monitoring or Teaching?

My very first reservations about my new role as a teacher came prior to the start of the school year, in our summer staff training days. I noticed a small icon at the top of my computer screen. This icon showed a pair of downward facing binoculars; when the binoculars pointed at you, someone was watching you. Tech administrators employ this as a tool to monitor student activity on the computer (and, in turn, tech administrators can monitor me.) The premise is that tech specialists can assist students and teachers with problems without actually being in the room. But on that August afternoon, it felt like Big Brother had arrived.

My sense of discomfort accelerated over the course of the next several months as I found myself in a new role. I was running constant surveillance on students, which detracted from my teaching. Was Seung really taking notes on Reconstruction, or was he emailing his friend in California? Were all 4th-period students really on Nettrekker looking for primary sources for their history projects, or were some students chatting through a file-sharing program? My classroom, supposedly a zone for deep analysis and honest commentary, had become a mini police state, with me as the chief of police. Trust eroded.

Now, whenever the computer lids opened, I had to re-establish boundaries, reiterating warnings on proper usage. I constantly monitored student behavior related to laptop use, becoming distracted from the content-but most importantly, becoming distracted from my relationship with students.

One morning last winter, as we compared today’s economy to the 1930s, Georgina discussed the economic hardships her own family faced, past and present. While most students were riveted by her comments, three young men had their laptop lids open ever so slightly, fingers quietly playing over the keys. While students have always been distracted by daydreaming or notes, the pull of the computer seemed to be a stronger and more alienating distraction. Even when I worked to establish respectful protocol in my room, many students spent much of the rest of their school day “plugged in.”

Creating Meaning from Information

One of my fears about our preoccupation with technology in education goes beyond my frustration over time, trust, and hardship. I wonder if, by creating a culture that emphasizes one person alone with one machine, we are negatively altering the way that we think and learn. I am no expert in brain function, but I understand something about how adolescents learn and process information, and the positive impact of ongoing face-to-face interaction. What I have witnessed over the past several months is a lack of focus by students for the content and for each other.

We had a class party at the end of first semester to celebrate the culmination of History Day, an extensive research project. We all brought food and drink, and set aside 30 minutes for socializing and enjoying one another and student work. Within five minutes, I realized something strange was happening. The room was silent, and students sat in their seats with chips, fruit, and soda-all laptop lids were up, and earphones in. I asked students to look up and examine what they saw. I told them that when I had offered this opportunity the previous year, the room was noisy and filled with student banter, jokes, and eye-to-eye engagement. Did they see a problem with the fact that we were having a “party,” but they weren’t talking to each other? Nora offered the defense that she and Claudette were socializing because they were sharing earphones. We all laughed, and I asked that computers only be used to share something with the whole class. Still, I was rattled and have seen this practice increase over the year. Students spend less time talking to each other or having quiet moments, and spend more time plugged into iPods, cell phones, or laptops-all at the same time, when possible.

I am also starting to wonder whether, by absorbing vast amounts of new information through new technologies, there are long-term social costs if we emphasize simply collecting data over problem-solving and analytical thinking. Many of my colleagues feel the same way; in the 2007 technology survey in my district, 73 percent of teachers indicated that “students often confuse finding information with understanding that information.”

Recently, I have begun to ask students to observe and discuss their own technology practices. (Kevin Coughlin’s Seattle Times 2007 article, “Teens Distracted to the Max,” is a provocative and disturbing article I’ve used in class.) I now see this as an important first step in making students more aware of how they spend their time. These young people are being raised at a time when society and educators pose far too few questions about the long-term impact of technology on their development.

Pushing Consumerism

As the year progressed, I kept asking myself who has power and who benefits from our preoccupation with technology? The software, hardware, and other tech companies obviously stand to gain economically as districts scramble to keep up in the digital race. Precious public school resources have been diverted to technology, while other needs have gone unmet, such as money for teacher planning to integrate curriculum or to create a school-based family resource center.

I am also uncomfortable with the mass commercialism our relationship with technology promotes. While at school, students are bombarded by consumer messages, as most forms of computer-based communication-email, websites, MySpace, for example-are peppered with advertising. I even found myself alerting students to free email accounts that are laced with advertising.

Tech Discomfort

An important question that I did not clearly ask myself at the start of last year was how different technology choices help and hinder learning for different student populations. After several months, I realized that as a school, we had never fully addressed how the fast pace of the laptop classroom would impact students who are less comfortable using technology. Last winter, I asked the tech specialists to come into class to register students for an online discussion board. Instructions whizzed around the room. Then I noticed Livia. While I already knew that life was not easy for this young woman, in talking with her, I also realized that this quiet, underachieving student who tries to make it through the day without being noticed by teachers or other students was frustrated to the point of tears by the laptop lesson. She had spent a long time on an earlier step in the instructions and was then completely lost. Livia, like many adolescents, was reluctant to ask for help or to say her frustration out loud in front of peers.

I realized that for some students, there is a social stigma attached to a lack of facility with technology; it sets them apart from many other youth and can feel like an area of incompetence in school.

The laptops have also meant a text-laden day for students. Over 68 first languages are spoken in my small district; I work with a number of ELL students. When we first received the laptops, my excited colleagues and I created numerous assignments that emphasized the internet and text-based discussions online, rather than in-class dialogue. While this offered quieter students more time to respond, it frustrated those who struggled with reading or students just learning English who needed to hear the spoken word and have a chance to “wrap their mouths around the words,” as one friend put it.

The laptop has also offered a “sanctioned” place for introverted adolescents to hide. In a fascinating discussion with my 6th period last May, I found that the majority of my ELL students did not think the district should keep the laptops. In a rousing speech, which culminated in thunderous applause from many of his peers, Hyung proclaimed, “The laptops are a waste of money and distract students from their school work.” At the start of the year, many of these same students wrote of feeling isolated as “outsiders” at school. By late spring, many ELL students believed that the laptops accentuated this distance for them. Many students at my school simply speak to each other less now.

Where Do We Go from Here?

If I could go back in time, before the laptops arrived en masse, I would ask a lot of questions during the planning process. While technology in the classroom offers many benefits, educators must discuss and plan for both the potential promises and perils of extensive technology use in school. I hope that as we create an educational vision based on social justice and equality,* we also push for dialogue on ways that the tools we employ might, in addition to helping us learn in new ways, also negatively shape our relationships and learning. Now, with a year’s worth of experience and reflection, I try to bring up this topic whenever possible. I raise it with students, with colleagues, at trainings, and at the district level. I also recently volunteered to serve on a union/district technology committee.

I also believe it is vital to discuss ways in which people have used technology to create a more just world. One example I recently shared with students took place last year when high school students throughout California organized immigrant rights walkouts using My-Space. Students need to see themselves as controllers of technology, able to use it to help build the world they want to see. And they must be given a chance to analyze its potential impact on their thinking and relationships. By reflecting on the potential promises and pitfalls of our choices, we put ourselves in a better position to use technology as a tool to create a community that values relationships, analytical thinking, equality, and justice.

* One interesting technology school model I have recently learned about is the Chicago Digital Youth Network program. While the system itself would not be an easy one to replicate, the basic premise of community-based and supported learning, teaching students to be critical consumers and creators of media, and the use of student-embraced technologies like social networking sites to facilitate learning, are worth investigating (see http://www.iremix.org).

Sarah Heller McFarlane (shmcfar@earthlink.net) teaches social studies at Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Wash. She works with Puget Sound Rethinking Schools. This article was originally written one year ago, as a reflection on her first year with the laptops.


C.A. Bowers. (2002) Computers, culture, and the digital phase of the Industrial Revolution: expanding the debate on the educational uses of computers. Retrieved March 3, 2007, from http://cabowers.net/CAbookarticle.php

Coughlin, K. 2006, November 5) Teens distracted to the max. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://hpp.beckman.uiuc.edu/news/SeattleTimesNov2006.pdf

Golubich, J. (2007, May 14) 2006-2007 Laptop initiative surveys summary report. Shoreline School District. Retrieved May 30, 2007, from www.shorelineschools.org

Hu, W. (2007, November 4) Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops. New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2007, from www.nytimes.com

Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Washington State reportcard: Shoreline School District. Retrieved May 31, 2007, from www.reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us

Notes for Next Time

Here are a few of the questions I would have asked before we embarked on a technology-heavy educational strategy:

1. How might this technology help students develop the academic and thinking skills we want them to learn? How might it hinder their learning?

2. What do we need to do to help students who may struggle with this intense emphasis on technology?

3. Who benefits from this extensive reliance on technology and in what ways? (This includes an analysis of both monetary and pedagogical benefits.)

4. What may be lost to make room for the time, money, and energy invested in the new technology? Is this a worthwhile trade and why?

5. How will we make sure that our use of the new technology will not create a greater class divide in our community, based on who is already comfortable with this technology and who is not, and how can the school become an open center of learning for all to help alleviate this divide?

6. How can we make sure that we maintain a community that values face-toface interaction, as well as technology-based interaction, to build relationships and a more just world?

7. How can we use this new technology to make our school an anti-racist institution committed to social justice education-for example, using the technology to track and analyze data on student suspensions and tracking, or to document the history of our community?

8. How can we engage students, educators, and families in long-term discussions and analyses of the impact of this technology on education and our lives? Who will facilitate these discussions, and who will track the impact (both negative and positive) of this increased reliance on technology at our school?

9. Can we, as a learning community, commit ourselves to take the time to predict the potential promises and perils of this new technology for our community, and continually revisit ways in which this technology is changing our teaching and learning over time?