The Future Today: The Laptop School

We all have spent time trying to anticipate the future of schools. One approach opens up many opportunities for our high schools and middle schools of tomorrow — the laptop computer/e-school. In these schools, every student is given a laptop computer in lieu of textbooks. The information resources are almost endless, as well as up-to-date. There are efficiencies gained through this technology, but most important, some students will thrive in this environment.

In 2005, the Vail School District opened Empire High School in Tucson, AZ, one of the nation’s first new schools designed with this teaching method in mind. Vail wanted to provide an alternative to their 1,650-student comprehensive high school and their 200-student charter high school. While being a green school and limiting the population to 700 students contributes to Empire’s success, the laptop technology has created an exciting learning opportunity. More importantly, it was Vail’s planning for the facilities, and involvement of the staff and community, that created the environment for Empire to succeed.

When the American International School in Kingston, Jamaica, started their research for a new K-12 school in 2006, they too where inspired by Empire. The design for their new e-school is now underway for a 2009 opening. Our planning processes are being challenged and confirmed by this exotic climate and culture. Fortunately, much about people and education are universal. Unfortunately, along with this comes the apprehension and resistance to such a major change.

The students don’t need much of a sales job. At home, they are connected to their cell phones, Ipods, and computers so they feel like they are going backwards when they go to school and are given a pencil and paper. Some teachers have a more difficult time with the buy-in. It is easier for an e-school to start as a new school, where you can recruit new staff who want this approach.

Answers are available for some of the budget concerns from administrators. The difference is surprisingly small when comparing the cost of laptops versus textbooks. There are also potential grants, and insurance for repairs and replacements. There is the additional cost of a higher-level technology guru for the school. This cost is a minor tradeoff for up-to-date resources and engaged students. Parents sometimes have questions about Internet supervision though there are many programs to control access and monitor students’ work.

What does an e-school mean to architects and planners?

  • The school should be wireless, covering the entire campus.
  • Most computer labs can be eliminated since the entire school is a computer lab.
  • You still need a library as we always need books.
  • The bookstore can be reduced in size, especially the storage area.
  • The lack of textbooks can allow the school to eliminate student book lockers.
  • Classrooms must be provided with a digital projector. A smart board is a logical addition to the technology. Because so much class time utilizes the projector, lighting must be controlled. This challenges our need for daylighting. However, blinds or tinted glass are necessary until the projector brightness improves. Indirect lighting with multiple levels of control is important to control glare.
  • A new program space required for a laptop school is a computer support center. This includes a place where students can stop in to get their laptops repaired or charged, software installed, receive technical support, and purchase accessories. Also required is an office for the technical director, a room for computer repair and storage, and the computer hub for the school. The computer support center should be convenient and centrally located. It could be connected to the library, though we may need to rethink our definition of the media center.
  • One other important element for an e-school is lots of electrical outlets to recharge computers. This is not only necessary in classrooms but also in the library, throughout the campus, and anywhere students may hang out.
  • With all of this technology, we may eventually need to be concerned about challenges created as students prefer to communicate by e-mail and text messaging, and transform their human interaction skills.

Schools, from Tucson to Jamaica, are still places for students, teachers, and the community to learn and grow. We must not lose the emphasis on human interaction. However, the integration of e-school technology provides valuable tools and experiences to prepare for the future.

Phil Swaim (Phillip E. Swaim), president of Swaim Associates, Ltd., joined the firm in 1985, and in 1992 he became president of the company. He is a member of the Council for Educational Facility Planners, Inc.