Laptop Learning

By Glenn Cook

Mark Edwards posed two questions to his technology staff in November 2000: "So what's the next step? Where do we go from here?"

The discussion centered on computer purchases for the next fiscal year, the superintendent of the Henrico County Public Schools said. Desktop computers were getting old and needed to be replaced; wireless labs were popular in the middle and high schools, but there were not enough.

"And then ..." Edwards said, shaking his head and smiling some 18 months later, "then someone asked the question: 'How much does a laptop cost?'"

About $18.6 million, as it turned out.

In May 2001, the 40,000-student district outside Richmond, Va., agreed to lease 23,000 Apple iBook laptop computers -- one for every middle school and high school student and teacher.

The laptop project, the first and largest of its kind in the nation, is a major test of the effectiveness of wireless technology. It is based on a desire to help all students -- especially those who don't have computers at home. It is also a lesson in the perils and benefits of jumping headfirst into an education initiative.

It is, as Edwards calls it, "a leap of faith" -- without a bungee cord. 

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