Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Laptops for kids

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You might have missed a story earlier this month that highlights something rare - -  South Carolina being first in something very good.

 A South Carolina public-private partnership is the first in the nation to deliver 600 educational laptop computers to elementary students in Marion County as part of a pilot project that organizers hope will go statewide.
 â€œFor this generation, a laptop computer is going to be a key to educational development, social networking and professional skills,” said Steve Skardon, executive director of the Palmetto Project.  “It’s going to be their main source of education.
 â€œAnybody with common sense is going to see how it’s better to get them this technology earlier and in their hands so that by the time they are in junior high school, they will be very comfortable and not starting from scratch.”
 SC Statehouse Report has been pushing this notion for years – providing low-cost laptops to students to make technology a bigger part of their learning lives.  But the twist with the new partnership between the Palmetto Project and the state Department of Education is that no taxpayer dollars have been used.  It cost a little more than $100,000 to get the special $180 computers developed just for kids – an expense largely paid for by Greenville executive Erwin Maddrey and Charleston businesswoman and congressional candidate Linda Ketner.
 â€œThe whole idea is to have these students see technology as a creative educational experience,” Skardon said.  “The idea is to explore and discover things.”
 He said he knew it would work because he let a group of 7-year-olds fiddle with one of the laptops this month.  Within five minutes, they had found a pre-installed word processing program and were learning how to spell their friends’ names on the computer.
 This new One Laptop Per Child/South Carolina project is the first domestic spinoff of the international One Laptop Per Child effort organized by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Since that effort started in 2002 to develop a laptop for learning for children, the organization last year started delivering thousands of computers to developing countries.
South Carolina’s project looks inward to help solve educational challenges in the Palmetto State.  Unveiled in Marion County on May 12, the partnership is working to collect enough money by the fall to order another 5,000 computers at a cost of about $1 million and 10 times as many by next spring ($10 million).
 Skardon said the Marion County pilot project at two elementary schools would serve as a blueprint for the state to outline what worked and what didn’t.  It might show, for example, that it’s better to give laptops to third graders, instead of kindergarteners. 
 â€œWe’re going to show we can improve the reading levels and math levels of these kids,” he said, noting that he bases the projection on results from three learning labs the Palmetto Project ran earlier this decade.   In those labs, young students had access to computer learning programs as their parents trained in an adult literacy program.  The unexpected result from those labs came from elementary teachers, who said they almost immediately noticed improved reading skills by children attending the labs as their parents learned to read.
 Skardon said the new laptop program would “leapfrog” students ahead in transformational ways.
 â€œI think what this is going to show is we can raise the skill levels of these kids in these early levels by one grade level – or two levels,” he said.
 Already, OLPC/SC organizers are encouraged.  Mayors from several cities have called to inquire about getting some $180 laptops.  Skardon said communities might want to pool local dollars with charitable donations to provide their local schools with the kid-friendly computers.
 â€œThis is not a program for poor kids,” Skardon emphasized.  “This is a program for all kids in South Carolina.  What we’re doing is essential a pilot project so we can learn from and have a blueprint in six months to share with all of the other school districts in the state.”

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