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« A Tough Question | Main | If they let me design the math curriculum »

How to be unpopular: no teacher laptops

Teachers have long understood that it is easier to never give a student a privilege and add the privilege later in the school year than to start the year with the everything and then take rights away.

This principle is true throughout life - we don't like having things taken away from us. 

I've been floating a proposal here in our district that is going over like a pregnant pole-vaulter: that teachers will no longer have the choice of a laptop or desktop computer - only a desktop.

First a little history lesson. My district was among the first, I believe, to assign computers to teachers. Our first "CODE 77" (Computers On Desks Everywhere) distribution was held during the 1992-3 school year:

Five of today's building principals, the curriculum director and one retired teacher who is now aschool board member were in the first two cohorts of CODE77 teachers.

40 teachers were chosen each received a Mac Classic II computer with HyperCard and AppleWorks, a StyleWriter printer, and a 14.4 baud modem along with 12 hours of required instruction, if I remember correctly. Teachers were encouraged to take their computers home on weekends and during summer, but were required to have them in school when school was in session.

Man, it was a tough battle getting administrative and board approval to do this. The program had about an $80,000 annual budget - huge!. Most schools around us were using tech dollars to furnish student labs. Some board members wondered why teachers, like diesel mechanics and carpenters, shouldn't just be required to furnish their own "tools." But somehow we convinced people that without technologically-skilled teachers, student computers wouldn't be well used.

Since 1992, we've run some version of this program - replacing about 20-25% of teachers' computers every year and requiring some skill updates. I'm guessing we've been giving teachers the choice of desktop or laptop for ten years.

But as we look at ways to tighten our tech budgets (MN is $6.8 billion in the hole* over the next biennium and both houses of the state legislature are no-new-taxes types), I've suggested we look hard at the TOC of laptops vs. desktops. Laptops:

  • Have historically been more expensive to purchase than desktops with the same memory, speed etc..
  • Have higher incidences of repair and maintenance, with each machine requiring two new batteries during its life span and often a new power adaptor.
  • Get lost, stolen, dropped.
  • Grow obsolete more quickly (as teachers tell it), needing replacement every three years instead of every five.

A growing concern is that when teachers take them home and then call in sick the next day, there is no computer in the classroom for the substitute to use for running the IWB, doing attendance, etc. As the use of GoogleDocs grows in the district, the need to store, access and work with files on individual machines is declining.

Yes, there would be laptops for check out in each building for teachers to take to meetings, conferences or occasional home use. Teachers who work in multiple buildings or had official duties outside the school building could still receive a laptop. 

Denying teachers laptops seems like a step backward to me. But I am afraid it may one of the smaller steps we may need to take if school budget projections in the state hold true. We are also thinking about buying refurbished computers or thin clients in our labs - not a real popular solution either. And after years of maintaining a rigorous replacement schedule, we may see older and older machines in "mission critical" locations throughout the schools - with the attendent unreliability when that happens.

My guess is that much of my planning over the next few years will center around the question "How does our department help people accomplish with technology what they want to accomplish but at a much lower cost?"

Tom Landry once defined a leader as somebody who gets people to do what they don't want to do in order to achieve what they want to achieve.  It's a great way to be voted the most unpopular kid on the block.

Do teachers really need laptops? 

* on a per capita basis, Minnesota has a bigger state revenue problem than Texas.

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Reader Comments (15)

Except for libraries and a few dedicated computer labs (art and tech) our district is completely laptop-based. We have mobile labs for students and all teachers have laptops. I have long argued that they hold up so much worse and we would be much better off (especially for student use) to use desktops.

Saying that, I think there would be a mass rebellion if we suggested removing the teacher laptops. To be fair, they are no pretty much mandated for all meetings. Now if I could get the district to look at cloud computing we would be much more efficient.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrad

I left a district that had laptops for every teacher, and yes, we often ran into the substitute issue. In my current teaching context, our classrooms have mounted projectors that are wired to a desktop (that by the way ties the teacher to being BEHIND the desk for use), as well as wired to a DVD player. Our sub policy does not allow substitutes to use the computer, though they can use the DVD player, which many do (another issue that needs to be addressed.)

The laptops that needed constant repair in my old job were the ones that teachers took home every night. Since I was point one on the triage before filing a workorder, I saw the abuse like cracked shells, missing keys, etc and the extra programs loaded (Instant Messenger, Software from personal cameras, even file sharing programs like Limewire) which were specifically addressed in the policies teachers signed to get their laptops. It's a shame a few make such bad choices as it reflects on the group as a whole.

In this day and age even those on limited budgets have access to computers in their homes. I hate to be a party pooper, but I'm in agreement that assigning laptops that can travel everyday is one that needs to end. MOST have their own laptops or desktops these days and so should not be relying on a school issued machine at home for productivity (play or schoolwork). With cloud computing, your work is anywhere you have access. So make a purchase, and write it off at tax time. Leave the school machine at school. Then when something goes wrong, no one who examines it will second guess the reason for the required maintenance.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Nelson

The district I work with gave all 3-12th grade teachers laptops 7 years ago with bond money. They planned for but did not budget for replacements. Now the budget is getting hammered and there is no money for any kind of technology that doesn't come from Title 1. I think our teachers would love to have a new desktop if that were all that was available. I keep wondering how productive the head of IT would be with a 7 year old laptop that takes 30 minutes to start up.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

We had laptops for all teachers a few years ago - same issues as the other posts. We now have a number of desktops in the teacher core rooms, and others around the school for teachers to use. I would bet that most teachers have computers at home, so no one here really "needs" a laptop.
I noticed that there was no metion of netbooks - besides being smaller, it seems that if someone really needs portable computers, spending $350 for a netbook would solve that problem. Since most school related information is web based, local storage is no longer an issue.
In my perfect world, all the money school districts invest in hardware would be channeled into staff training. Giving a teacher a laptop just to give them a laptop is like giving a 16 yeard old a car just because they are 16.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

When I arrived at our small district 3.5 years ago, all the teachers had first generation iBook G4s. At the time, they were about three or four years old, most were considered "too slow" and maintenance was a nightmare. Durning that first summer, we replaced all of them with a desktop/mounted projector/doc camera package, requiring all teachers to hand over their laptops. At the same time, we migrated the district to Google Apps for Education and a Windows network, began building a robust public/private wireless network throughout the district and updated our AUPs to encourage staff and students to bring in their own wireless devices. There was a little grumbling at first, but the overall improvement and reliability in service made the difference. By that time, every teacher had a computer at home, and cheap netbooks had started to appear for anyone that desired a little more mobility. Additionally, some teachers have opted to spend their annual classroom allocation on netbooks, and a few of the itinerant staff members were issued laptops. Due to issues discussed in earlier posts, those machines have accounted for more hardware support time than all the desktop stations combined.

We have purchased a small number of laptops to supplement our library desktop stations, but other than that we mainly focus on keeping static workstations above standard, adequate and accessible student labs, a 21st Century AUP, Google Apps and a great wireless network with plenty of available bandwidth. The old high maintenance iBooks ended up in a middle school tech lab, where a handful of them still function.

I haven't heard a complaint in over two years.

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Coker

I'm not so sure I'd write of the idea of having teachers furnish their own tools.

We've recently opened our district's middle and high schools to open access. Students and teachers can bring their own devices (computers, tablets, smartphones). We're still in the start up phase, but quite a few teachers bring their own computers to work (particularly if they're Mac aficionados - we're a Windows district at the moment).

In a way, this makes some sense. Teachers who use computers a lot often like their computers personalized (ie - favorite browser, text editor, mail client). The district provides common software tools (more and more which are cloud based). Indeed, the money a district invests is more towards infrastructure (network and wireless access) than hardware (although we do invest in thin clients for populations who don't have access to their own devices).

If I'm a young(er) teacher recently finished with undergrad or grad school, chances are I have a laptop. I can think of a half of dozen ways a district might encourage bringing your own laptop that would save the district money (ie - yearly stipend for laptop use, software in exchange for hardware, etc).

Just a thought.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZach

My district-provided laptop gets used as a student machine during the school day.

I can't imagine that would happen with desktops. Teachers would put them on their teacher's desks, face the monitor away from the students, and not allow students to sit in 'their chair" to use "their computer."

If you're spending money on technology that won't get into the hands of students, it's money that's wasted.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuss Goerend

we need laptops in order to save our work, our future lesson, grades and everything. But when it comes to my classroom, I think it's best to teach them manually. Beacuse through it you can easily attached to them, nourish them and I think it's easy for them to understand thelessons you have in mind.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdylan daph

Yikes. I can't say I have to face the Budget Monster you do, but having a laptop allows a teacher to work or plan at anytime without having to worry about wi-fi access or compatibility issues across multiple machines. I've had success with partially subsidizing a teacher's purchase of a personal laptop that plays nice with the school network. Not ideal as you don't have a uniform model for repairs and troubleshooting, but the teachers take better care of them than they would if the district provided them.

As you say, taking something away is usually met with pitchforks and torches.

Just my .02.

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

How serendipitous! If you've been following the KIC postings, this happens to be one of our discussion topics for next Tuesday. I've added a link to your post with the group as part of the discussion. If you can make it up to the meeting, we'd love your input on the discussion as well.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTroy Cherry

I think the idea of not providing teachers with an adequate tool to do their job is CRAZY. This discussion highlights a major frustration I've experienced in making a career change into teaching. I'm a classroom teacher who is doing the most I can with technology that is close to 10 years old.

I'm about to make a suggestion to my current school on replacement machines and I was going to suggest laptops, but after reading this post I agree in the value and getting the most machine for the money of a desktop machine.

For those of you who suggest teachers should purchase their own tools to do their job, I ask you, are you provided with the tools to do your job? I haven't seen any other profession that expects so much personal financing. Most teachers already are putting hundreds of dollars into their classroom each year. I'd be happy to purchase my own technology if I had the hourly rate of a mechanic or carpenter.

Schools - the only place that still uses VCR's!

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Hi Brad,

Given unlimited budgets for repair, replacement and maintenance, I would much prefer to give laptops to both staff and students. Sadly, we're in a zero-sum game with education. Anything I spend on tech is something that can't be spent on other things like small class sizes, field trips, better teacher salaries, etc.



Hi Cathy,

I've owned a personal computer since the Apple IIe days (when you were in diapers!) so I would have a very difficult time today having only a school computer with the many ( some necessary) restrictions that come with it. I'd think that would be the case with most educators, but then what do I know?


Hi Dottie,

It's a challenge to remind people that technology is not a one time purchase, but it requires maintenance and replacement. Most admins understand this about textbooks, roofs and blacktop driveways. What don't they get about technology?


Hi Kenn,

I agree that netbooks would be a great solution for many teacher uses - especially if they were available to complement desktops computers.

I second your motion about staff development. The old rule used to be 1/3-1/3-1/3 hardware, software/infrastructure and staff development.

I never knew a school that actually spent that much on staff development however!


Hi Stephen,

I really appreciate you sharing your experience. Sounds like a smart plan that worked out well!


Hi Zach,

Many of us now seem to be pretty "attached" to our devices - students and staff. Are we seeing the beginning of a sea change in how technology access is accomplished in schools? Interesting idea!


Hi Russ,

I say the bigger waste is to give kids technology without also providing teachers who are skilled in using the technology.

But hopefully most schools will fund both.


Hi Dylan,

If you have Internet access, you can create, save and access your work on any kind of computer - desktop, laptop or smartphone!


Hi J,

I'd agree that a laptop is certainly more convenient when working where there is no wi-fi. For those occasions, perhaps a $300 netbook?


Hi Jim,

I agree that few other professions expect their practitioners to purchase their own tools unless self-employed. And hey, what do you have against VCRs???


February 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

This is a great discussion.

In my district (12,000 students) we have not ever had staff laptops with the exception of some district-wide positions. However, every classroom has a 0-5 year old computer. We are a PC district that uses some SMARTboards and is preparing for a wider rollout of cloud computing and student email in the form of Google Apps for Education.

I wanted to weigh in on the threads about teachers being expected (or not) to bring their own technology. I have a number of friends who are engineers or business professionals. They have new laptops provided for them without exception every 2-3 years.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJake


My take on your final question of whether or not teachers really need laptop computers is this:

Teachers don't need laptops any more than students do. As a student, though, can you imagine learning without at least some Internet-connected device?

In our budding district, not all teachers have laptops and none of our schools are 1-to-1. However, we just set a standard that in the next three years, all teachers will have laptop computers.

Great discussion, Doug.


February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Draper

Hi Jacob,

Interesting comparison with engineers and business people. I sense that those who operate in an "independent contractor" mode provide their own equipment; those who work for a company as a regular employee get their equipment provided.


Hi Darren,

Does not having a portable device equal not having an "Internet-connected device" however? I guess an increasing number of people would say so. (I couldn't do without my laptop, my iPad, etc.)


February 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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