Putting Education Reform To The Test

What Florida Schools Can Learn From One Laptop Per Child

It’s family literacy night at Holmes Elementary School in Liberty City, and first grader Adam Redding is reading a poem about plants while he absentmindedly tips dirt out of a plastic cup and onto a laptop.

Sammy Mack / StateImpact

In this classroom, dirt on a keyboard is okay. The green and white computer is a rugged little machine from One Laptop Per Child, the organization best known for trying to put an inexpensive computer into the hands of every child in the developing world. Adam’s cup of dirt is part of a lesson plan that involves researching plants on the laptop, reading a poem, and seeding a corn kernel in a cup.

Welcome to the one-to-one classroom. One computer for every student.

As Florida schools prepare for a state mandate that requires half of all learning materials to be digital by fall of 2015, state policymakers are trying to figure out how to get an electronic tablet or laptop into the hands of every schoolchild.

“I believe that the only way we’re going to achieve what they need to achieve in the state of Florida is we’re going to have to have a one-to-one environment,” says Gary Weidenhamer, director of educational technology for the School District of Palm Beach County.

Weidenhamer is also part of the Digital Instructional Materials Working Group, which advises the Florida Department of Education on classroom tech policies. The group’s latest draft recommends Florida move towards classrooms where every child is working from a digital device.

Research is mixed on whether this model helps much with standardized test scores. But there is evidence that on a large scale, it can encourage all sorts of learning and critical thinking.

“It does facilitate differentiated instruction, and it allows the teacher to not necessarily be the sage on the stage,” says Weidenhamer. “But it allows students to take control of their learning and learn more independently.”

Exactly what kind of devices students should use will likely be hammered out by individual school districts. And those decisions will be influenced by factors like compatibility with new standardized tests, online courses, and district security systems.

In the meantime Weidenhamer and other members of the working group are looking at successful one-to-one models in other places for best practices. Initiatives in school districts like Mooresville, N.C. and Huntsville, Ala. have gotten national attention for piloting these programs.

And then there’s One Laptop Per Child, which has distributed about 2.4 million computers in developing countries. Most have been shipped to Latin America—25,000 to Nicaragua, 860,000 to Peru, 510,000 to Uruguay—which is why a few years ago, OLPC Child set up an office in Miami, often considered the U.S. gateway to Latin America.

The 500 laptops at Holmes Elementary School are OLPC’s first foray into Florida classrooms.

Sammy Mack / StateImpact

Melissa Henriquez works with One Laptop Per Child in Miami.

“I think the state of Florida can learn from our relationship with ministers of education [in Latin America],” says Melissa Henriquez, who oversees the project at Holmes for OLPC.

She says buy-in from teachers and staff—and the training they receive—are key to the success of a project like this.

“What happens is the culture of the school changes—depending of course on the level of support from the administrators of the school,” says Henriquez. “Every classroom becomes a new version of themselves.”

As for first-grader Adam Redding, his take on the laptops is about balance.

“I work hard, so I can go to second grade,” he says. “I get on my laptop everyday… they always help me play my favorite things.”


Correction: This post erroneously stated that the Miami site was One Laptop Per Child’s first U.S. project. 


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