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Are You Ready for Laptop High Grads

What happens when kids from laptop
high schools show up on your campus

In Henrico County, Va., an area that includes Richmond and its suburbs, all the kids graduating from high school next year will have spent four years in laptop schools. The school system has developed a network to support the largest system of Apple iBooks ever created. The cost per pupil in that county is now lower than the state average. The standardized test scores are going up and the drop out rates going down. This is the kind of success formula that is likely to encourage other school districts around the country to explore laptop campuses.

The 6th through 12th graders in Henrico County are now used to sitting in classrooms with wireless connections and working on whatever they think is critical. The teachers are giving their students assignments that do not involve traditional textbooks, but encourage them to explore Web-based resources and create multimedia reports. This is not isolated to just one county in Virginia; the state of Maine has put laptops into the hands of all seventh and eighth graders.

If these kids eventually go to one of the few laptop campuses in the U.S.—e.g., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Davidson College, Berea College, or Mayville State University—they will feel right at home. They will be able to work in the ways to which they have become accustomed. However, if they show up at most state colleges or universities, they will be quite disappointed with the types of instructional settings they face.

How d'es all this relate to distance learning? Rather profoundly. As the schools embrace full access to online resources, they are importing services and resources. They are also giving kids access to online Advance Placement (AP) courses that are produced and distributed by colleges and corporations. These school districts could never afford to support as many AP students as is possible electronically.

Consequently, as more schools go laptop, the market for eLearning AP courses is likely to grow. In addition, as more of these courses become available, there is likely to be a shift in the quality expectations of the purchasers. Right now the people at the school district or state who are selecting the courses are feeling lucky to find anything that fits their needs. It will not be long before they have some real choices.

As better and better quality eLearning courses are used by pre-college students, the colleges need to be getting ready. We can no longer allow classroom activities like those I saw about three years ago at one of the top rated campuses in the country: a handful of students (presumably the ones who bothered to show up for class) lounging in the back of a classroom while a young instructor (presumably a graduate student) conjugates a list of German verbs on the chalkboard. Since I witnessed this all-to-typical activity, that campus has become a laptop campus. I look forward to the opportunity to return to the campus and roam the halls. Hopefully I will find a transformed teaching environment.

Students are learning where to get the courses they need. They know how to shop online, even if their faculty do not. In addition, legislators are pushing for institutions to be more accountable to the public and more responsive in accepting credit transferred from other institutions. As these two forces come together, higher education institutions may be pushed into offering higher quality technology-enhanced learning opportunities.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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