Are Laptops Helping Lower Merion Students Learn?
The school district is presenting evidence in the affirmative, but some students are claiming otherwise.
The mission was clear: give every student in the school district a personal laptop computer, educate teachers on how to improve their instruction and enable learning to soar.
Two-years into the one-to-one laptop program at Lower Merion High School, and three years at Harriton, the Lower Merion School District is already claiming benefits in education, but others are questioning the results.
On Monday night, Jan. 10, at the School Board of Directors meeting, Jason Hilt, the district’s Supervisor of Instructional Technology, orchestrated a presentation on the effectiveness of the program, which he claims is helping students reach new levels of learning.
When evaluating the effectiveness of laptops in learning, the school district uses an instructional model called SAMR, which stands for Substitution Augmentation Modification and Redefinition.
On the lowest level, teachers can use the new technology to substitute for resources or previous instructional practices, but the goal is to move teachers beyond substitution to augmenting lessons (providing additional instructional advantages), modification (changing a lesson to uniquely capture the benefits of advanced technology) and finally, redefinition (reaching previously unreachable heights in education).
Lower Merion educators would cease to be providers of content, as Hilt put it, but instead providers of context. Instead of telling students what to learn, teachers would open the door to a world full of information and knowledge where students can continue learning on their own. The printed handouts of the past—content—give way to Internet research, online periodicals and databases, and unlimited access to information—context.
Using Laptops for Learning
Hilt showed video vignettes from some of the district’s classes to illustrate excellence in technologically-enhanced educational experiences. In Elliot Burch’s biology class at Lower Merion High School, for example, students reinforced learning on animal behaviors by creating stop-motion “claymation” videos illustrating their knowledge.
Burch made a simple wood set for the videos and taught students to use their Macbook cameras to take over 200 still shots of little clay figures. They used iMovie to piece together the shots into 15-second animated videos. One of the example videos showed a clay dog behind a white picket fence. When another dog approached, the gleeful pup jumped up and down and barked, later chasing a squirrel. The students wrote a brief summary of the behavior characteristics illustrated, which scrolled across the screen as the video closed.
Another example used was of Allison Mellet’s Lower Merion High School Spanish class. Mellet said she switched to a completely paperless class one year ago, and now conducts all of her classroom assignments on computers.
Mellet creates a virtual classroom online where her students can download class materials and upload their own assignments. Over the year, each students builds his or her own portfolio, containing each of the assignments, presentations and projects completed throughout the year.
Long gone are the “repeat after me” days of learning a foreign language. Students are taught in Mellet’s class to use their Mac’s GarageBand application to record their own mini-podcasts for their teacher to hear. Their pronunciation and fluency of speech can then be analyzed individually, a crucial element to teaching a new language.
“[The one-to-one program] allowed me to connect and collaborate with my students from virtually anywhere,” Mellet said. “It allowed me to challenge myself and my students on a daily basis.”
What Do the Students Think?
Four students, two from Harriton High School and two from Lower Merion, spoke at the school board meeting about how the program has affected their learning.
Eli Derrow, a senior at Harriton, said that using his district-issued laptop has helped him balance a busy schedule and prepare for college. Derrow currently takes five AP classes and manages a National Honors Society student-tutoring program in his spare time. He said he uses an Excel spreadsheet on his computer to match student needs with tutor specialties and schedule availability. When tutoring requests come in, a quick check on Derrow’s spreadsheet and an email later, both the tutor and student know where to meet.
Daniel Carp, another Harriton senior, said that he also benefits from his laptop by staying organized. “I keep everything I need for school on my computer,” Carp said. “I can connect with students and teachers, and any pressing question I might have can be answered with a quick email.”
Justin Shapiro and Sarah Zimmerman, both Lower Merion seniors, chipped in with ways the laptops have helped them learn in their last year of high school. Zimmerman talked about spending nights tucked into a corner seat at Saxbys or Starbucks, typing away on her computer for class assignments. A recent chemistry research assignment was accomplished by searching through an extensive database of academic journals, provided online by the school district.
Shapiro said his laptop has helped him stay on top of school work while he is away for athletic events. Instead of sitting idly on a bus while traveling to swim meets or baseball games, Shapiro said he can open his laptop and get some of his school work done. If he doesn’t understand something taught in class, he might even pop over to YouTube to see if he can find video of someone else teaching it. “Sometimes another way of looking at it can help,” he said.
The rosy picture of the one-to-one laptop program presented by the school district isn’t shared by all, as one student and a few parents pointed out on Monday.
Conor Ferguson, a Lower Merion High School senior and editor-in-chief of The Merionite student newspaper, came to the meeting to offer a different perspective.
The Merionite conducted a student survey in December 2010 about the district’s laptop program and a total of 555 students and 71 teachers responded. What the newspaper found was that when asked, “Has the 1-1 computer made you more/less likely to pay attention to teacher instruction?” 47 percent of students responding said “less likely,”—compared to 11 percent “more likely,” and 41 percent “no effect.”
Teachers, too, shared the students’ concern, according to the survey. When asked, “Do you think students pay the majority of their attention to the material at hand when using their laptops in class?” 54 percent answered, “No, they are distracted,”—compared to 27 percent “Yes, they are mostly focused,” and 20 percent “other.”
Despite potential trouble concentrating, 73 percent of students said they were allowed to use their laptops at least 50 percent of the time in their classes, and 59 percent of teachers allow students to use the computers in an average class, according to the school survey.
Improvements to efficiency and organization for students like Carp and Derrow at Harriton may also be an exception to the rule, if the survey carries weight. When teachers were asked, “Do you feel that the 1-1 laptop has changed students’ work habits and time management skills?” 54 percent of teachers said “Yes, for the worse,”—compared to 20 percent “Yes, for the better.”
Pam Brownstein, a Merion parent, also expressed concerns about the message the district might be sending by providing students with a means of working non-stop at coffee shops on school assignments. “If we’re concerned about the holistic needs of students… that message is not a great one,” she said. “The stress of our students is a concern, but we’re also implementing it in a way.”
A quick look at the district’s laptop policies would also poke a hole in studying on a school bus, which the school district website says is prohibited—“use of a laptop while on a bus would constitute a safety hazard.”
Another issue brought up by parents and school director Melissa Gilbert was access. Preliminary data collected from the district's student surveys indicated that about 30 students do not have Internet access in their homes, something Superintendent Chris McGinley acknowledged as a problem currently without a solution.
If assignments are due online, or course materials must be downloaded, students without Internet at home could be disadvantaged. McGinley said the district is exploring options, and until something permanent can be found, it helps to point those students to free Internet available after school hours in district buildings or to other free-Internet locations.
The superintendent said the district has spoken to a few technology companies about the situation, and is trying to find solutions to individual issues that have been brought to their attention, unsuccessfully so far.
Like the one-to-one program itself, “It’s an ongoing effort,” McGinley said.