Textbook-Free: Checking In at Laptop High

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In the fall of 2005, Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., ditched its textbooks and gave each student a laptop instead. The experiment was meant to foster creativity and put the most current material in front of students. It is now the end of another school year, and time to see how the switch measures up.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Two years ago, Empire High School in Vail, Arizona, outside Tucson, abandoned textbooks in favor of laptops. At the time, we spoke with the history teacher, Jeremy Gypton, who said the technology opened up a world of possibility.

Mr. JEREMY GYPTON (History Teacher, Empire High School): Pictures, maps, audio, video, you name it.

NORRIS: NPR's Ted Robbins recently went back to the school to see if reality measured up to that promise.

TED ROBBINS: Let's be clear. Empire High School is probably a best-case scenario for using laptops in education. It's new - built just two years ago to serve suburban Tucson's booming population. Network wiring and hardware were installed during construction. And because it was new, district superintendent Calvin Baker says Empire High have the flexibility to spend $800 a piece on laptops instead of $500 per student for a full set of textbooks.

Mr. CALVIN BAKER (Superintendent, Vail School District): We also saved money by not doing computer labs or by doing fewer computer labs because, in essence, every room is a computer lab once you have laptops.

ROBBINS: So, lesson number one for laptop success may be start from scratch. Lesson two is the same - start from scratch apply to students. Teacher Jeremy Gypton, who we spoke with again, quickly realized that just because kids know how to play video games doesn't mean they know how to use computers for schoolwork.

Mr. GYPTON: You know, here I am trying to teach about Thomas Paine and I need to show you how to save a document. I need to show that guy over there how to find this document once he saved it.

ROBBINS: But once they learned the software, students like Amanda Pilgrim(ph) say her laptop really helps.

Ms. AMANDA PILGRIM (Student, Empire High School): You have so many tools to express what you've learned, whether it's with the PowerPoint or writing a paper or creating a movie or a slideshow.

ROBBINS: In his civics class today, Jeremy Gypton sends his students home with an economics lesson that is made to be done online.

Mr. GYPTON: Do this folks, sites like longrealty.com have actual homes for sale in the area, okay? Find yourself a house, use that bankrate.com to try to find yourself a mortgage and bring in those figures on Monday. We'll see if we can fit that into your budget.

ROBBINS: Lesson number three: hire teachers motivated to use the technology. Gypton says he assigned lessons no textbook could ever keep up to date.

Mr. GYPTON: When we studied lawmaking last semester, we basically lived the class through house.gov and senate.gov. We followed our representatives and our senators' bills while they were going through Congress.

ROBBINS: Lesson number four: expect distractions - not a lesson anyone who uses the computer for work already knows, and Amanda Pilgrim is learning.

Ms. PILGRIM: On the Internet you start looking at things that you shouldn't be looking at during school. Like nothing inappropriate, it's just - you start doing things like looking up job applications or looking at colleges, and you're supposed to be doing like research on a certain Supreme Court case in government and then you find yourself totally lost in class.

ROBBINS: Laptops do allow these students to take all their work home in one package, but they don't replace every book. Empire High still has a library. The laptops break down, the school keeps about 40 loaners handy, and they don't necessarily translate into measurable student achievement.

Catherine Maloney is director of the Texas Center for Educational Research, which has been comparing test scores between middle school using laptops and those that don't.

Ms. CATHERINE MALONEY (Director, Texas Center for Educational Research): It's still early for us to expect changes and test scores but at this point we found that no significant differences between control schools - those schools that did that did not receive laptops and those schools that did.

ROBBINS: So, the final lesson may be don't expect miracles. Everyone agrees success with laptops requires students, teachers, and administrators to know how to effectively use the technology. Although there does seem to be at least one side benefit just for students, replacing a bunch of heavy textbooks with one laptop makes their backpacks a lot lighter.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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