The Student Laptop Computer in Classrooms:
Not Just a Tool
Prakash Nair, RA, REFP
More than a Pencil
If you ask the question, how can computers enhance student learning, you will often hear the answer, "The computer is just a tool - like a pencil." The idea is that you don't learn "computers" but you "use" computers to learn something else - the way you use any other tool. Following this line of reasoning many schools have moved away from teaching computers as a specialty in computer labs and introduced them into classrooms for everyday activities. The birth of the national laptop program had its roots in this concept.
In my various presentations around the country on the subject of laptop learning, I too have been guilty of using the word "tool" to describe the computer in a student's hands. That view changed after talking to an experienced teacher in a laptop classroom, who was offended by comparisons of laptops to traditional classroom tools. She told me that comparing a computer to a pencil implies that these are both passive tools - waiting to be manipulated by their users. According to her, "The roles of both teacher and student are changed by the introduction of laptops into the classroom because laptops empower children in ways no other 'tool' has been able to. Such student empowerment is a fundamentally new way to organize the classroom. This is very different from the changes you might expect by giving children pencils or other traditional classroom tools like rulers, protractors or even calculators. Even though I don't object to the word 'tool' to describe a laptop, I firmly believe it is more than any other educational tool."
Digital Teaching Assistants
Stretching my teacher-colleague's reasoning a bit, I have started referring to computers in classrooms as "digital teaching assistants." This term may evoke concern because it bestows a certain "human" dimension to computers. The rap on technology today is that it is dehumanizing society by limiting social interaction. Do we now want to admit that computers have become our surrogate "friends?"
Actually, my use of the term teaching assistant is simply a matter of convenience. It is derived from what the experts say, and from my own personal observation of the way children interact with computers. It is also an accurate description of what computers do for children within and outside the classroom. Let us look at the two terms:
- Enables and/or enhances an activity.
Beyond Tool - Computer as Digital Teaching Assistant
- Serves as a sounding board for your ideas (interactive programs, chat rooms, emails and instant messaging)
- Challenges your assumptions (expert advice, research data)
- Expands your horizons by exposing you to new concepts and information (virtual tours, simulations, research data)
- Forces you to think critically (examine and analyze multiple points of view, participate in online debates)
- Motivates you to participate (visual medium, multi-media, interactive programs that can work at your pace but challenge you to get to the next level)
- Helps you to produce (simplifies complex operations, magnifies your effort by converting numbers to charts, spell and grammar checking, automating presentations)
- Helps you to learn (improves retention through engagement)
- To round out the definition of computer as teaching assistant, we need to add an important, often overlooked, feature:
This last feature of computers is important because a non-judgmental environment is critical in breaking down individuals' natural resistance to change - in prejudices and attitudes.
Merely, having access to a laptop computer does not embody it with digital teaching assistant status. To realize its full benefits, students must be working with laptops in project-based networked settings with full Internet access under the direction of able teachers.
Redefining the Teacher's Role in a Laptop Environment
Getting a laptop to function as a good teaching assistant requires a teacher to be the curriculum integration expert - how to incorporate the technology, and knowing when to use it and when not to. That means, teachers must still exercise true leadership in the classroom by providing an overall vision for accomplishment and then helping each student to get there. Like students, teachers in a technology-rich environment are freed from the isolation of their classrooms as they continue their dialogue with peers, parents and their students after class.
Second, it frees up the teacher to apply "wisdom" to learning that comes from life experience - something our digital teaching assistants lack. Also, non-judgmental is a double-edged sword allowing, for example, propaganda to masquerade as fact; it takes a teacher's wisdom to show students how to sift one from the other.
Third, the teacher still plays an important role in developing the social behavior of children - a skill that many contend is the number one determinant for success in the adult world.
Perhaps the most important benefit of laptop computer as teaching assistant is that it frees up the teacher to spend more time with particular students for help as needed, when needed, without concern that learning in the rest of the class will come to an abrupt halt.
From Mass Production to Mass Customization
America's public education system is built around the flawed notion that children learn the same things at the same pace at the same time. With a majority of the nation's schools already built and here to stay, our mass production model of education is unlikely to change anytime soon. However schools that provide digital teaching assistants to every student, properly integrated into the curriculum, can serve as education's answer to the "mass customization" trend that is sweeping across the manufacturing landscape. Surely if we as a society would like every car that rolls off an assembly line to be unique, why should we expect anything less from the students who graduate from our schools?
Writer's Background Information
Prakash Nair is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of innovative school facilities and educational technology. He is the Director of Educational Facilities Planning for Vitetta and President of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century. Before that, Prakash served as the Director of Operations for a multi-billion dollar school construction program in New York City. His many articles on designing school facilities that will endure well into the 21st century have been internationally published in print and on the Internet and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed him recently on the subject.
In 2000, Prakash conducted numerous seminars and workshops at the invitation of professional organizations and governments in five countries on four continents including the Netherlands and Australia. Prakash can be reached by email at
Prakash Nair, RA, REFP
Director, Educational Facilities Planning, VITETTA
856-321-2000 ext. 212 NJ Office
718-459-0342 NY Office
© Design Share & Prakash Nair 2001 | Design Share | September 2001