Lakeside tsunami

Bill Gates' alma mater erupts in controversy over mandatory use of laptop computers.

SOME STUDENTS at Lakeside are so brilliant they could virtually float into Harvard. Lakeside—an exclusive North Seattle private school with around 700 students in grades 5-12—has a roster of alumni and parents that includes powerful players at the leading edge of technology enterprises today, among them Bill Gates, Paul Allen, brothers Craig and Bruce McCaw, and AOL's Jim Barksdale. If an intelligent technology program existed anywhere in American education, you'd guess it would be here. Guess again.

A group of Lakeside parents would surely give a "D" to the critical thinking behind a decision that, starting next fall, every student in grades 7-12 must own a laptop for use at school. Some of the most passionate parental opposition consists, ironically, of e-mails posted on a Web site by a parent who teaches at the Evergreen State College, computer specialist Doug Schuler. His "Laptop Moratorium Now!" at www.scn.org/commnet/laptops urges that the plan be shelved until it can be justified educationally.

(Full disclosure: I taught at Lakeside for 25 years and was a member of its first Technology Task Force in 1997-98. During our debates about a laptop mandate, I acquired a Luddite label from administrators by publishing "nay" arguments that were being smothered by the collective "yea" of True Believers. Yet I'm a techie outside and inside the classroom—as a visiting member of the University of Washington's English department, I teach in a Mary Gates computer lab.)

In an interview this week, Head of School Bernie Noe conceded that good research on laptops is lacking: "I don't think they've been around long enough to do reliable studies." But students in a pilot project at the middle school told him laptops help them stay organized, "and they like being able to use them anytime, anywhere." Wireless links to online Lakeside library resources will mean that "any student sitting out on the quad can ask a librarian a research question." All students "will have the same level of access to computers whose technical capabilities we know and can work with in terms of program and upgrades," and all will be well prepared for a future in which "they'll use technology in virtually every aspect of their lives." Curriculum and instruction using the laptops haven't yet been designed, however, Noe admitted.

Despite the administration's lack of laptop curriculum development, Board of Trustees President George Hutchinson, of G.P. Hutchinson Co., reportedly told parents at a school meeting last week that sometimes a school community must accept decisions made by people in charge, just as customers accept decisions made by people who run a business.

SOME PARENTS find such points persuasive, and all who spoke with me are grateful for the good education their children get at Lakeside. But many believe that the purposes and effects of a laptop mandate are not well enough understood. "Education is so precious," said Schuler. "What pedagogical question is the laptop approach answering? What deficits are being addressed?" Richard Berger, a parent who is a professor in the UW's Department of Urology, wondered "why clear objectives and outcomes" for such a huge, costly program were not specified. "There's no evaluation plan, not even an analysis of educational trade-offs," he said. And some parents were shocked at Board President Hutchinson's comparison of schools to businesses. In an e-mail to Noe now posted on the Moratorium Web site, parent and UW Professor of Immunology and Biochemistry Nancy Maizels wrote: "[Hutchinson's] argument was a crass one. . . . If this is his educational vision, he should not be making educational decisions; if this is the board's vision of education, Lakeside is in deep trouble."

It may be hard to keep school and business interests separate when billionaires with ties to Lakeside have wealth to donate and, if not the conscious intention of promoting dependence on technology, understandable biases about the efficacy of wired classrooms. But confusion between academic and commercial interests is epidemic in America. This is hardly surprising when the careers of so many people in education are enmeshed with the ambitions of computer and software makers and marketers.

For example, the report of an educational consulting firm hired to assess a year of laptop use by Lakeside's seventh-graders quotes from the International Society for Technology in Education, the founding chair of which is a wealthy educational software entrepreneur and the board of which is dominated by computer consultants and distance-learning specialists. ISTE, in turn, cosponsors the National Education Computer Conference, a trade fair fronting as the most comprehensive, scholarly ed-tech conference on the planet. Lakeside, like schools around the nation, sends faculty to these annual conferences for "professional development," even though NECC's home page frankly displays its purpose: helping computer and software manufacturers market their products to a captive audience they unctuously flatter as the "best and brightest administrators and teachers today." Still, says Noe, promises of outside funding weren't driving Lakeside policy. "We did go out to a couple of donors—the outcome of those solicitations isn't yet public—but the laptop decision wasn't based on availability of donations."

While The Seattle Times reports 12 private schools in the region require laptops for some or all grades, the heads at three of Lakeside's sister schools, University Prep, Northwest School, and Bush School, say their technology plans don't include laptop mandates—they have computer labs supplemented by sets of wireless laptops for classroom use. But, they conceded, different schools have different goals. "At U. Prep," said Head Roger Bass, "rather than be occupied with machines, we want time on campus spent in interactions between teachers and students." For Northwest's Head Ellen Taussig, "Our teachers bring knowledge and passion to their work—we don't dictate how they use computers."

Regardless of other schools' strategies, Lakeside parent Doug Schuler is not expecting the administration to back down. "I detected no room for compromise" after meeting with Noe two weeks ago, he says. But vocal parental opposition may have opened a door. Noe now says he's "not going to move forward in full unless there's a critical mass of support."

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