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The good, the bad, and the laptops


In Passamaquoddy House at Moore Middle School in Portland, the students in Donna Agrenís Family and Consumer Science class are hard at work planning their futures. Joe, a loquacious young kid, gives me a slide-show presentation of the cars he owns ó a couple of high-end sports cars at the moment (but heís got his eye on a Hummer) ó and shows me pictures of his swank wardrobe and spreadsheets of his personal budget. The nice threads, he explains, are work clothes. Joeís a doctor, you see, a job he inherited in a random draw as part of Agrenís career-preparation unit.

Joe created the slide show, the scrapbook, and the spreadsheet using his brand-new Apple iBook. And though some of his classmates may have to make do with apartment-sharing and carpooling, every student in the class, be they film producer or garbage collector, has a brand-new iBook at their disposal thanks to the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), a four-year, $37.5-million deal that formerĖGovernor Angus King made with Apple, guaranteeing every seventh-grader (and next year, eighth-grader) in the state a laptop computer.

In class, the students are working on their monthly budgets, deciding how much they should spend on rent, utilities, insurance, and entertainment given the limitations of their fictional future careers. For every class, each student must draw a chance card which, as in Monopoly, attempts to mirror real life by throwing an element of the unexpected into an otherwise planned existence. As the hubbub of kids reacting to their good or bad fortunes increases, one boy reads his aloud: “You buy a new TV, but while carrying it up the stairs you strain your back.” While that new wide-screen HDTV may be pretty sweet, the student groans in mock disappointment, “a trip to the chiropractor costs $50.”

Fictional class exercise aside, it serves as a reminder that medical problems can sideline anyone at any time, and they often come unexpectedly. As I look around the classroom, past all the excitement the laptops seem to be generating, I see the beginnings of what could potentially be a big monkey wrench in the studentsí futures: The kids are hunched forward over their laptops, bending their arms and wrists at odd angles to reach the keyboards, and craning their necks down to see the screens properly. Given enough time, this could be fertile ground for carpal-tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and repetitive-strain injury ó problems that could have a very big impact on Maineís future, indeed.

Across the great divide

One doesnít need to be reminded by the “What a wonderful day it will be when the schools have all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a BAKE SALE to buy a bomber” bumper stickers to know that education ranks pretty low on the governmentís list of priorities. In a climate in which “no child left behind” is followed with no corresponding budget increases, Maineís laptop initiative has rekindled some teachersí enthusiasm, and sparked the imaginations of students, parents, and the general public.

Despite its controversial nature (some think the price tag too dear, others would rather the money should be spent on more “practical” things like leaky roofs and basic school supplies), formerĖGovernor King thinks the program his greatest accomplishment. In a retrospective Q&A in the Portland Press Herald last December, King said, ÒThe early returns this fall indicate that itís meeting and exceeding our expectations in terms of its ability to transform education.Ó But just how is it transforming the classroom?

Although the program is still developing, and its future beyond the first contract is up in the air, MLTI appears to be accomplishing some of what it started out to do: namely, as reported in The New York Times in March, 2000, “to bridge the Ďdigital divideí between students who have computers at home and those who do not.” ThenĖGovernor King told the Times, ÒI want Maine to have the most digitally literate society on earth.Ó

Today, Tony Sprague, project manager of MLTI, states that, although the program is just out of the gate, “the initial reaction weíre hearing back are items like student attendance is better in classrooms in which the students have iBooks, issues like discipline referrals seem to be down by a considerable percentage . . . Theyíre staying much more focused on their work.” This kind of zest for the educational process may be par for the course for students lucky enough to be enrolled at Hogwartís School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but in the public school system?

As Ione Dakin, a science teacher at Biddeford Middle School, told the Press Herald last November, “I donít know what the magic is.”

More important than finding out what the “magic” is may be figuring out how to use it wisely.

A professor of literacy studies at USM, Henry Amoroso has been involved with issues in education like these for the last 10 years. An early supporter of Kingís plan, Amoroso isnít down in the middle-school trenches himself, but is currently teaching an Electronic Literacy class to a group of teachers in the public-school system. At this point, he says, “kids arenít hooked on the knowledge side. Where theyíre connected to technology is email, the social parts. Itís going to take a special teacher to figure out ĎHow do we exploit this natural resonance?í.”

Sprague confirms that this is happening: “You hear that students are more collaborative, whether itís working more on presentations or projects together, thereís more sharing going on in the classroom,” he says. “One student may figure out a way to use a keyboard shortcut and show the others, but they also share actual information, data, resources that are focused on the curriculum.”

In the class I observed at Moore Middle, there did seem to be a lot of communication taking place. Kids were showing each other where they got what off of Google, helping each other with email; one girl, her arm in a cast from a sports injury, was helping a friend auto-fill a spreadsheet.

But perhaps one of the most exciting possibilities that computers offer is the ability to create what Amoroso calls “a living textbook.” He says teachers should be “giving children an opportunity to create Weblogs or Web pages, to publish, for them to create with the software a very multimedia-saturated presentation of their research. When we get to that point and the average student, rather than turn in a four-page paper, creates an amazing portfolio of links and sound, that would be radical.”

We might not quite be there yet. Sprague says many of the schools have kept their emails and Web postings internal so far and some schools may not be able to purchase WebĖhosting services, but he says ÒI think youíll certainly see schools moving toward hosting on the Web.Ó

Itís important to be able to do creative projects on the Web, says Amoroso, so kids can find their voices. “Anyone who writes has to feel that if they have something to say that somebodyís going to read it, and giving children an access, in group projects letís say, to disseminate their work, even if itís within the school, thatís powerful.”

Even if the amount of postings is uneven between schools, the laptops, at least from anecdotal evidence, seem to be altering and improving the way kids write. “Weíre hearing from teachers that students are spending more time with their writing projects,” Sprague claims. “The students say itís much easier for them to go through two or three drafts [on the computer], rather than writing a page out by longhand every time they want to change a sentence or paragraph.”

Clearly, even something as basic as a word-processing facility has the potential to totally transform learning. With a basic Word program, kidsí writing and editing processes can become more fluid. Anyone whoís ever used a typewriter or written out an essay by hand can attest to the power of CTRL + C, for instance. Who would go back to the eraser after enjoying the obliterating power of Delete?

Sitting in the Moore Middle School classroom, I look at a studentís photocopied career checklist filled out in messy graphite loops and then glance at the crisp, clear multimedia presentation heís created. There is no question that, at a basic level of writing as a creative outlet, computers offer an amazing leap forward for students.

Itís important to realize, too, that one of the best parts of the MLTI is that most kids feel comfortable with computers. Kelly Arsenault, a computer teacher at Moore, as well as the buildingís technology coordinator, makes the point that, in the recent past, many kids would come to school from their computer/Internet/video-game-rich environments at home only to have those things “ripped away” at school.

“The iBooks have allowed kids to communicate in the language theyíve grown up with,” she says.

Thatís a great thing. And the supporters of the program have managed, already, to at least grapple with a lot of obstacles, from legislation and budget issues to allowing the opportunity for every student to be able to take the laptops home. But there is one potential problem with the laptops that seems to have been overlooked ó the major health risks they pose to the students.

Suffer the children

The Maine Learning Technology Initiative Manual that I downloaded from the Internet, a 55-page document meant for distribution to teachers, students, and parents involved in the program, devotes most of its space to care for the laptops, maintenance of the laptops, liability for the laptops, and, to a lesser extent, features and programs.

The singular mention of student safety in the handbook comes, almost as an afterthought, on page 54. Itís number 14 in a list titled “General Handling and Care,” a list which restates yet again most of the computer-care guidelines already outlined in the manual. This sole bit of user safety advises students: “For your own health, when using the computer, it should be kept at least 18 inches from your eyes and the screen should be at a lower level than your eyes.”

This brief and token mention of user safety speaks volumes about the lack of care thatís been taken so far for the studentsí health. Most of us in the workforce are familiar with the video-display-terminal training that the stateís Bureau of Labor Standards mandates for all VDT operators (anyone who uses a computer for more than four hours a day), to make sure our employers arenít putting us in dangerous work environments. Why isnít there a similar requirement for students who are using video display terminals (their laptops)? Where is the concern about their work environments?

As Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, puts it, “the design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen are separated . . . I mean, if the keyboard is in a good location for you, youíre going to get neck and shoulder problems, if the screen is in a good position, youíll get hand, wrist, and arm problems,” he cautions. Purchasing a separate keyboard and mouse for each computer is a potential (though expensive and unlikely) solution to this inherent problem with laptops. But thereís still the problem with posture.

Hedge warns that children will most likely use the laptops in all different kinds of locations ó on the floor, on their beds, on the couch. This is not a good thing, he says.

Sprague inadvertently confirmed that this is happening when he told me about his recent trip to Maranacook, in Readfield. “Some students . . . were sitting on pillows against the wall,” he said, “and the students were sitting there on the floor with the laptops, just on their laps working.”

His telling of this, as though this were a positive development in the educational process, even mentioning that some students are allowed to use beanbags, bears witness to the real lack of ergonomic knowledge in the administration, among the teachers, and in the general public. This should be cause for concern.

Even if students sat in their chairs all day, however, they would still have to contend with the often poor design of their desks, chairs, and tables. In studies professor Hedge conducted on schoolchildren, he discovered “that, typically, they were sitting in really awful postures and that it was really the furniture that forced them to do that; it wasnít that they wanted to do that naturally.”

Explaining the difficulties of providing uniform work environments for students, Sprague points out that, today, classrooms are set up in a multitude of different configurations, so it may be hard to draft any sort of system-wide requirements, given the diversity of the setups. Though some classrooms have desks, others, like the one I visited at Moore, have tables around which children cluster. (In Mooreís case, the tables were too high for most students to have proper arm angles in typing and mousing, and the tabletop area was too small to allow the computers to be pushed back far enough to provide the proper viewing distance.)

But Hedge stresses the importance of well designed furniture and notes that it may be possible to adapt already existing furniture. Barring that, he says, an investment in good, adjustable furniture would be a wise one. The desks and chairs are likely to stay functional long after the current iBooks are out of date.

And though itís true that the students may be in much the same position that they would be if they were writing on paper or reading a book at their desks, computing is an entirely different process.

“The act of typing is different from the act of writing,” Hedge reports. “In writing, what you donít have is the same movements of the tendons and you donít have the same hand posture, so you donít have the same pressure changes inside the wrist that affect the function of the nerve.” Studentsí posture is important whether writing or keyboarding, but the added stress to tissues and tendons while typing and mousing further raises the importance of good posture.

After all, says professor Hedge, “The last thing we want to do is create a whole generation of people who are primed for injury when they enter the workforce.”

Tunnel vision

The main reason that Sprague offers as to why ergonomics havenít been a main focus for the MLTI so far, is that there havenít been any complaints. “Itís not an item that schools have brought up to us as being one that has been any type of problem. No schools that Iím aware of have reported anything of that type back to us, saying theyíre having troubles.” He adds that “if schools start raising issues that theyíre seeing any types of trouble or they have concerns, weíll certainly look at those situations and see how we can address them.”

The problem here, though, is in waiting for the problems to arise. Computer-related injuries often stew for long periods before surfacing, and most schools have only been using laptops for a short while.

Professor Hedge says that Maine should be studying the impact of laptops on students from the get go and outlines a couple important areas of study: the physical impact of laptop use, as well as the impact of lugging around iBooks all day in addition to often overloaded backpacks.

“People would rather just stick their head in the sand and say ĎWeíd rather not know,í than try and do something about it because the fear is, that if you find problems, itís going to both cost money to improve the situation and itís going to expose schools or districts to potential liability claims.”

In fact, Hedge has run into problems studying schools with laptops in the past; at times heís been stonewalled by either the administration or the PTA. But he cites a study carried out in Perth, Australia, on 314 school children, ages five to 12. Dr. Leon Straker, senior lecturer in ergonomics at Curtin University, found that 60 percent of the children experienced discomfort when using their laptops.

“Guidelines are desperately needed for schools and parents to safeguard children,” said Dr. Straker in his project summary. More guidelines, presumably, than can currently be found in the MLTI Manual, Moore Middle Schoolís Apple iBook Guidelines, and on the computer-safety posters adorning the walls of Mooreís computer lab combined.

“I think the point here is that schools can implement a program in ergonomics thatís part of some curriculum,” says Hedge.

Dr. Straker added that “marketing by computer companies and educational literature on potential learning benefits appear to be applying significant pressures to use laptops. However, we believe parents and teachers need to balance these pressures with the potential musculoskeletal and visual problems.”

Professor Hedge agrees, noting that “Iím not picking on any one company here, but itís in their interest to get as many users converted to their operating system as possible. I mean, why on earth does Apple put so much emphasis into their education market? Because it hopes those people will remain Mac users. So theyíre trying to catch kids early ó itís like the Joe Camel of the computer world.”

In fact, Hedge attended a conference at Johns Hopkins over a year ago that involved most of the big technology and software companies, which looked at the relationship between children and computer use. All the corporations seemed to be in agreement that ergonomics was a major issue that needed to be studied and dealt with.

“That workshop was supposed to define a research agenda,” says Hedge. But “absolutely nothing happened, and I suspect what will happen is that it will probably take some children getting injured, some parents realizing what caused it, some lawsuits against the schools and the manufacturers, and then weíll hear somebody starting to say, ĎWell, why didnít we ever hear about this?í and act surprised, and, really, thatís a very unfortunate way of responding.”

So the real question is, as Angus King put it in The New York Times article, “Is Maine going to lead or lag?”

Josh Rogers can be reached at jrogers[a]phx.com

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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