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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


From Laptops to Backpacks

The next computer revolution will take place in classrooms, when each child owns his or her own PC.

I will never forget a visit I made to a math classroom in an elementary school at Lemon Grove School District in San Diego, Calif. We were there in the spring, and a bar chart on the wall showed that each of the students had already finished the full year’s curriculum, months ahead of time. This is not an upscale, highly privileged district. Half of the kids are on the free lunch program, and English is not the native language of many of their families. (Thirty-seven languages are spoken in their homes.)

I had gone there with a theory that when students are given their own computers to use at school and at home, under the right conditions, “superlearners” will emerge. But we weren’t completely prepared for the overwhelming success that we found at Lemon Grove. We asked the math teacher about the potential for improving student performance. She smiled and pointed to the bar on the chart that represented the best achiever. “He’s already two years ahead of this class,” she said.

We hope such stories will be typical of the future; they certainly are not typical of the past. Last May, Goldman Sachs International Vice Chairman Bob Hormats put into words (in a keynote address at the 2006 Strategic News Service [SNS] Future in Review conference) what many businesspeople know instinctively: Education can be a country’s greatest weakness in a globalized business environment.

We also know that simply throwing money at the problem does not help. Education funding in the U.S. has been climbing for decades, but reading scores continue to decline. Meanwhile, Western education systems are increasingly unable to produce enough candidates for high-value jobs, involving research and development, programming, engineering, and the like — jobs that increasingly go instead to candidates in India, China, and other developing regions. So what is the answer, and who can provide it?

These questions led me to form SNS Project Inkwell in 2003, a global consortium chartered to “accelerate the deployment of appropriate technologies onto K–12 desktops.” My cofounders and I believed that only technology could deliver a revolution in K–12 education. But not just any technology. Specifically, what is required can be expressed in a phrase: “one-to-one computing” — that is, the revolution that takes place in the classroom when each child owns his or her own PC. Yes, the devices have to be better designed than they are today — and much cheaper. That’s been our primary goal. And no, the device itself is not nearly as important as the training of educators for its proper use and introduction into schools. That’s a related goal, which we are working on right now.

Three long-range trends are coming together to make one-to-one computing particularly relevant now. First among them is computers in schools. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. spent $50 billion per year on wiring schools to the Internet. Each school launched its own computer lab, and kids learned to type. But in the end, it was an embarrassing showing: The government spent $200 billion bringing technology to schools during the 1990s without any noticeable improvement in learning or test performance.

It turns out that having a computer lab, or a PC on a teacher’s desk, or even one machine for every four students, is essentially worthless — in fact, it’s probably a distraction. As far as we can tell, real improvement takes place only in classrooms with a one-to-one computer/student ratio.

Hence the second trend: the movement toward providing individual children with computers. Its best-known incarnation is One Laptop per Child, the handiwork of MIT Media Lab pioneer Nicholas Negroponte and Logo programming language inventor Seymour Papert. But this program, according to Dr. Papert, does not include, or require, any educator training at all. Just plug in the machine and the education outcome should change. It turns out that this is not plausible. Without teacher training, computers cannot be introduced into classrooms effectively.

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