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From Laptops to Backpacks

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

(originally published by Booz & Company)

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.

Fortunately, the third trend is a rise of interest, mostly unseen outside education circles, in better “staff development,” as educators call it. And when these three trends come together, here’s what we see:

• Schoolrooms self-organize into study pods (usually of four members), and students begin working and learning in teams. Learning is more project-based, with each student taking responsibility for a particular part of that project.

• During oral and written questioning, all children answer all problems at their computers, so it isn’t just the bright kids who jump in. The teacher can see how each child is doing and provide help in real time to those students who most need it. Students take their machines home at night and do homework on them in a connected environment (this, too, is part of the Inkwell goal). For students in needy homes, this is a great equalizer.

In a survey by the Greaves Group and the Hayes Connection, titled “America’s Digital Schools 2006: A Five-Year Forecast,” 88 percent of the schools operating one-to-one programs that tracked their academic outcomes reported “moderate to significant positive results.” The survey concluded: “It appears that properly implemented ubiquitous computing solutions can help improve student achievement to a significant degree.”

Former Maine Governor Angus King (who is now chair of the Inkwell Governor’s Committee) was a pioneer in understanding the power of one-to-one. In 2002, he ordered laptops for every seventh grader in his state — about 37,000 of them. Maine is currently in its fourth year of this program. “We realized early on that this was not just about education,” Governor King said. “This is about economic development.”

Massachusetts, Michigan, and South Dakota have similar statewide one-to-one programs. Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and another 11 states are also now moving toward statewide implementations.

One-to-one computing could produce a windfall for computer makers. That’s why they will be motivated to tackle the performance and cost improvements required to make this concept a success. There are 54 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the U.S. alone. At a hypothetical technology budget of $1,200 per child — which includes not only the PCs but learning devices, servers, software, network, and training — there is a potential $64 billion in the Inkwell U.S. market. Apply this formula around the world, which we are doing, and the numbers grow much larger.

But to take advantage of this boon, computer makers will have to produce machines at reasonable prices that better meet the needs of students and teachers. We have more than 30 corporate members of Inkwell so far, and we are working to establish standards for machines that are simple, durable, and accessible to children. A typical Inkwell computer can outperform business laptops in a variety of measures, from higher survival rates in the classroom to less time lost to booting and support, with a lower total cost of ownership.

Even in an age of ever-tighter education budgets, the movement toward one-to-one PCs is inevitable. The success in states like Maine and districts like Lemon Grove is so dramatic that even if some educators resist, parents and politicians will surely overrule them. In fact, the revolution is under way: The Greaves/Hayes survey found that 24 percent of all U.S. education districts are already in the process of transitioning to Inkwell’s approach. Starting in schoolrooms, the magnitude of this change may be the catalyst that ushers in the next wave of lightweight computers, which will be associated less with the airplane seat of a business traveler, and more with a student’s backpack — and ultimately with a new style of lifelong learning that emerges on this new, near-ubiquitous platform.

Author profile:

Mark Anderson ( is CEO of the Strategic News Service (SNS,, a newsletter covering the computing and communications industries; convenor of the annual SNS Future in Review conference; and chairman of SNS Project Inkwell ( 
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