Notebook Programs Pave the Way to Student-Centered Learning

Remember your school supplies? A 3-ring notebook, a collection of pens and pencils, and maybe a protractor, compass and ruler? These tools prepared you for the challenges of a new school year. With them, you could write, erase, measure, draw and communicate.

While today's students are still required to do much of the same work, the tools are rapidly changing. Portable computers are finding a home in K-12 classrooms around the world. Instead of carrying backpacks loaded with 3-ring binders and pencils, many students now walk to class clutching notebook computers. As more schools integrate portables into the learning process, studies are showing that these high-tech tools are making a profoundly positive impact on teaching and learning.

Innovative programs, like Toshiba's Notebooks for Schools (NFS) concept, package low-priced, cutting edge notebooks with powerful Microsoft software and a variety of accessories and value-adds specifically for classroom integration. These values mean greater computing access for students and educators alike. A wide variety of comprehensive leasing and finance plans also now make it possible for nearly any school, teacher or student to participate in notebook learning.


Reaping Positive Results

In the fall of 1996, 55 schools volunteered to take part in a pilot program put together by Microsoft Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems. This experiment, based on a concept of increasing computer access to K-12 students in Australian schools, became what is now known as Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning (AAL) program.

One of the original pilot districts, Beaufort County Schools, has a student body that comes from widely diversified economic backgrounds. Nevertheless, their initial Anytime Anywhere Learning/Notebooks for Schools (AAL/NFS) program started with 300 eager sixth-grade participants. Today, just two years later, more than half of the county's middle school students are part of the program.

More and more parents are becoming advocates of the program. "I have never seen Melanie as excited about school and learning as she has been since the day she brought her notebook home," said Kitty Ott, mother of an eighth-grade Beaufort student. In addition, due to a school-wide improvement in academic performance, the faculty support is strong. Herman Gaither, executive superintendent of the Beaufort County School District, wants to expand the program to all students as soon as possible. "Our notebook PC students have improved their schoolwork and demonstrated higher-level thinking skills," he explained.

Another Notebooks for Schools site near Fresno, California also sees positive results, and has expanded its 90-student pilot program to include 500 students in its second year. Today, there are over 1,000 students and teachers in the Clovis Unified School District using Toshiba notebooks in the classroom. "We see similar findings to those of the 'Powerful Tools for Schooling' study in our notebook classrooms every day," said Walter Buster, superintendent of the Clovis District.


The Rockman Report: Portable PCs Accelerate Student Learning

The Powerful Tools for Schooling report is an independent study of notebook programs conducted by Rockman, ET AL, a nationally recognized education research firm based in San Francisco. Two intensive studies were conducted during the 96-97 and 97-98 school years. In the second year, Rockman gathered information from 144 teachers and more than 450 students, including a comparison group of non-notebook students.

Techniques for gathering information included student and teacher interviews, simulated problem-solving tasks and shadow studies of both notebook and non-notebook students. Key findings demonstrated these facts:

  • Notebooks help students use more problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Students with access to notebooks use a greater number and variety of information sources in research projects. A third of the teachers said critical thinking was second only to writing as the skill most improved through the use of notebooks.
  • Notebooks lead to higher quality work. Eighty-seven percent of teachers believe access to notebooks has increased the quality of their students' work. More than a third name writing as the most improved academic area.
  • Notebooks help teachers spend more one-on-one time with students. In high school classrooms where students have access to notebooks, teachers spent twice as much class time consulting and conferencing with individual students or small groups as teachers in classes without notebooks.


Overcoming the Obstacles

Educators new to the concept still have many valid questions about the integration of notebooks in schools: Are the computers safe in the hands of students? Do we have to hire IT managers for our classrooms just in case a student's notebook crashes? How can we find the money?

Many of the answers are found in the creativity of the schools themselves. Some have developed a notebook rental system while others use "classroom-in-a-cart" concepts. Still others find that program adoption brings new community involvement as the school, parents and local businesses partner to obtain funds and design their particular approach to implementation. In many of these cases, Toshiba Financial Services helps simplify the purchase process so that every child has the opportunity to obtain a notebook. Local computer resellers work closely with schools to make the repair and maintenance of notebooks relatively easy and cost-effective.

Rockman researcher Laura Walker discovered an interesting phenomenon: "Sites were first faced with building support for the program. Now, many sites are faced with a new challenge, born of the success of these early efforts. In many places, the program has proven popular enough that scaling up is a major concern. Administrators must negotiate issues of training larger numbers of teachers, providing security for even more notebooks, and continuing to seek funding for an even greater number of students."

Perhaps the most important consideration of all is to develop a vision for improved access to computing technology. Where there is a commitment, teachers, parents and students have overcome the obstacles to reap the benefits.


The Way of the Future?

Notebook programs are rapidly growing worldwide and may eventually become the classroom norm. In just two years of development in the United States, Toshiba's program has nearly 50,000 students and teacher participants in more than 500 public and private schools. Microsoft has officially introduced AAL in Canada and the United Kingdom, and more countries will join in the coming years.

Clearly, there's value in providing educators and students with tools that are representative of the age in which they live, tools that enhance the skills of communication so that all students are ready to face the world of their future. We've known for many years that the way we educate our young is due for an overhaul. As a nation, we've struggled with education fads and fashions, and have argued the benefits and pitfalls of any number of attempts at change. "Our second research year revealed some of the most compelling findings I have ever seen about how technology can improve learning," noted Saul Rockman. "In schools where students are learning with notebooks, we are seeing the types of educational change called for by today's standards and school-reform efforts."

For more information about Microsoft's Anytime Anywhere Learning, visit For more information about Toshiba's Notebooks for Schools program, visit, or call the Toshiba Education Center at 1-888-62-LEARN.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.