Getting Computers into Schools (Anywhere, Anytime Learning)

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Vancouver Computes, August 1998

Kids and computers. Go together like ducks and water, don?t they.

But while about half of Canadian homes now have computers, and virtually every office worker has a computer on her or his desk, Canadian schools are still working towards providing a computer to student ratio of 1 to 10.

While recognizing that students need to gain enough experience working with computers to prepare them to use these tools naturally in further education and at work, schools that can provide students with access to a computer lab for as much as a couple of hours a week qualify as the good ones.

Despite this, some schools are pursuing a vision?one where every student has access to a computer, typically a notebook, any time, anywhere they need it?at home and at school.

First tried out in Australia, the idea was presented in North America, at an educational conference in March, 1996. Since then, its been adopted by over 170 US schools?both public and private, well-off and poor. They report that giving students unlimited access to computers and the Internet changes the parameters of the classroom?making students, from grades 5 to 12, discoverers of knowledge rather than passive recipients of learning.

Typically, schools chose to focus on standard business software, rather than strictly educational programs. Word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation packages became creativity tools.

In New York City?s Harlem, a pilot program at Mott Hall School, where even poor parents paid a share of the costs of leasing notebooks is considered so successful, that the school district is aiming to add an additional 2,000 students a year. Fears that kids with notebooks would become targets for theft were dealt with by encouraging parents and students to band together, helping to build community. In fact, theft and accidental damage has not been a big problem. Bringing the computer home helped involve parents and families in the students? education. Costs to parents, typically about $30 per month, are on a par with cable-TV subscription rates.

New York School Superintendent Anthony Amato predicts that laptops will be on most students? desks within five years. Texas school-board president is proposing to outfit all of the state?s 4 million students with laptops with CD-ROM and Internet access replacing traditional textbooks.

Similar programs have been tried in a handful of Canadian schools, including Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, where next year?s Grade 9 students will all have laptops, and l?Ecole Secondaire les Compagnions-de-Cartier in QuebecCity.

The schools that have experimented with these programs seem to be unanimous in reporting that they?ve seen changes for the better in their students attitudes towards school. Students were more likely to revise and edit their work, and produce work that they were proud of. Problem-solving and communications abilities improved, as did creative and divergent thinking, cooperation and collaboration.

Parents, teachers, and schools looking at implementing a plan to give every student their own notebook find that there a lot of hurdles to over come. Creative fundraising, typically involving a combination of school and parent funds, along with government and business grants need to be pursued. Getting teachers on-side, reassured that while their role in the classroom might change, they aren?t about to be replaced. And assuring teachers and parents that there will be support to improve their computer skills, along with their students?. Finding ways to integrate the new technology into the existing curriculum.

In the 1970?s, Microsoft founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates say their goal was ?A computer in every home and on every desktop?. They?ve gotten much of the way there, with computer penetration of schools lagging behind homes and offices. To help speed up the process, Microsoft and  notebook manufacturers Toshiba and Compaq have been working together with interested schools, calling the project Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL). They are following up their work in the US with a Canadian launch, beginning with a conference in Toronto on October 23-24. For more information, check or contact Microsoft Canada?s Michelle McLay at (905) 568-0434

While Microsoft with its AAL efforts are proposing PC hardware, running Windows and Microsoft Office software, other schools are moved in similar directions using Apple?s eMate or NTS Dreamwriter computers. Both models are significantly less-expensive than standard notebook models. Apple, however, is no longer supporting the eMate, based on the recently cancelled Apple Newton hand-held. And while the Dreamwriter, from Maple Ridge, BC?s NTS Computer Systems (1-800-663-7163:, with models ranging from $269-$549 (CDN) is attractively priced, it is a non-standard model, with limited features that don?t include CD-ROM or Internet access.

As an adult, I?ve found working with a notebook computer certainly makes me an Anywhere Anytime worker. (Take that, 40 hour work week!) As a parent and a teacher, I find the vision of equipping every student with their own notebook tremendously exciting. At the same time, I have to recognize the formidable barriers that will have to be overcome before all our students can become Anytime, Anywhere Learners.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan