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A Laptop in Every Backpack
A single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world’s people together as never before. The core premise of this paper is that the emergence of this network is one of the seminal events of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world’s commerce, finance, communications, media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world’s 6 billion people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive mobile phones. Each year more of the world’s people become connected to the network, its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do. Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and fulfillment for the people of the world. We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world’s people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years. This paper offers thoughts on one piece of this commitment – how we best bring the power of this network to America’s schoolchildren. Achieving the American Dream in this century increasingly requires fluency in the ways of this network and its tools – how to acquire information and do research, how to construct reports and present ideas using these new tools, how to type and even edit video. We believe we need a profound and urgent national commitment to give this powerful new 21st knowledge, essential for success in this century, to all American school children.
A single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and
satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world’s people together as never before. The core
premise of this paper is that the emergence of this network is one of the seminal events
of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world’s commerce, finance, communications,
media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world’s 6 billion
people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive
mobile phones. Each year more of the world’s people become connected to the network,
its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do.
Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an
essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and
fulfillment for the people of the world.
We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world’s
people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life
success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of
commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing
this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be
one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.
This paper offers thoughts on one piece of this commitment – how we best bring the
power of this network to America’s schoolchildren. Achieving the American Dream in
this century increasingly requires fluency in the ways of this network and its tools – how
to acquire information and do research, how to construct reports and present ideas
using these new tools, how to type and even edit video. We believe we need a profound
and urgent national commitment to give this powerful new 21st knowledge, essential for
success in this century, to all American school children.
We believe that America needs to put a laptop in every backpack of every child. We
need to commit to a date and grade certain: we suggest 2010 for every sixth grader.
These laptops need to be wirelessly connected to the Internet, and children need to be
able to take them home. Local school districts should choose how best to do this, but
there needs to be federal funding and simple, federal standards. Funds and strategies
for how training our teachers to lead this transformation need to be part this
We believe it will cost at first $2 billion a year to provide every 6th grader a laptop,
about what we spend in Iraq every week. Hardware costs continue to plummet each
year, and the idea of a $200 laptop or classmate PC is coming ever closer to reality. It is
not a question of resources, but of vision and political will. Libya has just announced a
national commitment to give all its school children a laptop. If Libya can do it, so can
Giving our children the tools for computer literacy is the 21st century equivalent to
teaching them how to read. In the “flat world” described by Tom Friedman, there can be
no life success without it this knowledge, no real chance to seize the American Dream,
no secure and prosperous road to the middle class. We believe giving every school child
a laptop must be an essential part of any strategy to ensure broad-based prosperity for
America in the 21st century.
So, let’s look at what it might require to put a laptop in every backpack.
The starting point for participation in today’s global communications network is to own
a computer and have Internet access. According to the Pew Internet and American Life
Project and Intel Corporation, there are still 30 million American households that do not
have a computer.1 This gap in access has become progressively more troubling as
technology has progressed from a tool that provides a competitive advantage to a
baseline need for social, civic, economic and educational participation. Students in the
21st century must be equipped with the skills and tools to succeed and participate in our
increasingly technology-rich, knowledge-based economy. For school-age children, the
consequences of not being a part of the digital age are daunting. Technology has become
increasingly important for academic success, as computer and high-speed Internet access
are shown to raise students’ test-taking aptitude and provide a superior resource for
homework help, school research and information gathering.
The irony of this situation is that in the 1990s, the United States held the position of
world leader in pioneering technology applications and the Internet. Our innovation had
a profound impact on our and the world’s economic and educational growth. For
example, within the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the E-Rate program was created
which ensured that all schools, rural or urban, rich or poor, have affordable Internet
access. According to the American Youth Policy Forum, today 98% of American schools
have access to the Internet because of the E-Rate program2. In addition, investments by
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the 1990s allowed for the near ubiquity of
Internet access (98.9%) in public libraries around the country3.
Despite our early lead in developing technology applications and policies, in recent
years we have lost our leadership position. According to the International
Telecommunication Union, the United States has fallen to 15th in the world in
broadband penetration rates.4
Innovation has shifted as education systems abroad have recognized the need for
technology in education. The lack of leadership demonstrated in the United States,
juxtaposed with the advances that have taken place abroad, will put us in a less
competitive position tomorrow.
In addition to these issues of technology leadership, the U.S. is lagging behind because
access to computers and the Internet in this country are still somewhat related to income
and race. A study from a May 2006 Report by the Pew Internet and American Life
Project found that only 21% of people earning less than $30,000 a year have broadband
access, whereas 68% of households earning $75,000 or more a year have access.5
According to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2005, 63.9% of white
households have a computer in their home and 57% have access to Internet. Only 44.6%
of African-Americans have a computer in their house and only 36% had access to
Internet. Among those of Hispanic origin, 44.3% have a computer in their household and
36% have access to Internet. Asian Americans fared better than any other racial group
with 72.9% having a computer in their household and 66.7% having Internet access.6
Those gaps are closing, but we need to close them faster.
America must re-establish itself as a leader in preparing our children to participate in
the global economy by ensuring that all public school children regardless of race, income
or geography have access to the tools of the 21st century digital age.
Outside experts estimate initial costs of $2 billion in the first year, which will enable
every 6th grader in America to acquire a laptop. Once implemented, increased costs
would be incremental rather than exponential and will rise over time, depending on the
decisions of policymakers about how quickly and how broadly to scale implementation
to additional grade levels. The constantly decreasing costs and increasing life-span of
hardware will help mitigate cost increases and there are achievable economies of scale
that can be reached depending on the choices of our policymakers.
Computers in the Classroom
To begin preparing all children for participation in today’s global communications
network, we must ensure that there is a laptop in every 6th grader’s backpack to use in
the classroom and at home. Not only is computer access a fundamental necessity to
participate in today’s global communications network, it also significantly enhances
academic performance and student achievement.
A study by Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) reports:
• “Positive evidence supporting computers’ effectiveness” showing that computer
and technology use increases the aptitude of a child who is performing at the 50th
percentile level to between the 59th and 72nd percentile.
• Lower-achieving students experience much greater benefits from access to
computers than those who are already high-achieving students.
• Home computer users scored, on average, three to five percentage points higher
than students without home computers.7
In a decade-long series of studies, students in classes that use computer-based
instruction outperformed their peers on standardized tests of basic skills achievement
significantly.8 These benefits occur because technology provides a teacher with an
arsenal of tools that are more effective than basic textbooks. By providing students
with computers in the classroom, they can engage with real-time information not
included in textbooks, access resources without having to wait for a free computer in a
lab, and master multimedia presentation and communication skills.
Teachers who use computers in the classroom can drill students on specific topics for
which they need extra help. Computer programs provide individualized instruction and
instant feedback that motivates students to continue with their lessons. Moreover,
curricula can be geared to meet the particular learning needs of students and can allow
them to gather their own information and resources. The use of laptops can also allow
school districts to save significantly on text books, while connecting their students to
diverse sources of content that are the best available in their respective subject areas.
This is not to suggest that traditional materials should be eliminated and that
conventional classroom instruction should be discarded, but rather that by leveraging the
tools of technology we can overcome some of the instructional constraints found in the
four walls of a classroom with one teacher and thirty students.
The innovation of the Internet reduces the barriers of race, income and geography in
America’s public school system. Young people, whether they reside in geographically
isolated rural communities or attend a failing inner city school, can have access to
premiere educational resources with the click of a mouse. That access provides a robust
set of course options available online from foreign language to Advanced Placement
Further, more than 90% of students aged 12 to 17 use the Internet to find “better
information” than the information found in schoolbooks.9 This is particularly useful in
under-performing schools where resources may not be available and textbooks are often
Computers at Home
Evidence supports that students should have the opportunity to take home a computer
in the same way they would a textbook. Providing a laptop for every schoolchild
creates equality between those who have computers at home, and those who don’t.
The ability to take a computer home is critically important. For example, students
report that their daily use of the Internet drastically differs from in-school Internet use.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Internet and computer reliance
to complete homework assignments takes place primarily “outside of the school day,
outside of the school building, outside of the direction of [students’] teachers.”10 By
providing students with access to a laptop, students can go online at any time and in
any location to access tutoring and homework help.
According to a recent survey, among high school age children (ages 12-17) the following
statistics have been reported:
• 80% of students have coursework that requires using the Internet at home.
• Almost 65% of students utilize the Internet to work on school assignments at
• Nearly 60% of students aged 12 to 17 use the Internet to access dictionaries,
thesauruses and encyclopedias.11
It also provides an opportunity for parents to use the laptop for educational and asset
building purposes. A recent study of One Economy’s work funded by the John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation and conducted by SRI International and the Pew Internet
and American Life Project found that adults who were provided with a home computer
used it for a variety of purposes including to:
• Search for and apply for jobs.
• Make purchases and pursue educational opportunities.
• Engage in banking and take classes online.
• Exchange e-mail, make informational inquiries, read or listen to the news,
conduct research for school, and interact with friends.
In addition, technology offers new and exciting ways for families to increase involvement
in their children's education by checking progress reports, attendance and test results as
well as assignments through schools’ websites. Laptop ownership at home and at
school facilitates a greater level of collaboration among students, teachers, and parents
and results in greater academic success.
In today’s 21st century global communications network, it is no longer just a competitive
advantage for schoolchildren to have access to a computer. It is now a prerequisite for
children to have this access both inside and outside of the classroom.
The fat envelopes that used to be stuffed in the mail by college applicants every year no
longer exist. Today’s high school seniors apply online and upload digital files of their
grades, essays, and recommendations to the university’s network
Furthermore, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in professional,
scientific, and technical services will increase by 28.4% and add 1.9 million new jobs by
2014. Employment in computer systems design and related services will increase by
39.5% and account for almost one-fourth of the 1.9 million new jobs created in
professional, scientific, and technical services. Additionally, management, scientific,
and technical consulting services also will grow by 60.5%, prompted by the increased
use of new technology and computer software.12
It is not just increased professional opportunities that demand technology skills, in
today’s global communications network people are using their computers for a variety of
major undertakings. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that over a
three-year period, Internet use grew by:
• 54% in the number of adults who said the Internet played a major role as they
helped another person cope with a major illness. And the number of those who
said the Internet played a major role as they coped themselves with a major
illness increased 40%.
• 45% in the number who said the Internet played a major role as they made major
investment or financial decisions.
• 43% in the number who said the Internet played a major role when they looked
for a new place to live.
• 23% in the number who said the Internet played a major role when they bought a
Our young people must be equipped with the tools necessary to navigate through
today’s global communications network. One advantage today versus the 1990s is that
the costs for the tools of the digital age have been significantly reduced. In recent years,
as the cost for computing devices and broadband decreases and connectivity and
mobility of these devices increases, there are fewer practical concerns surrounding the
implementation of a program to provide every child a mobile, computing device.
Beginning in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1990s, and followed soon after with other
technology initiatives, urban and rural communities across the country began reporting a
widespread increase in positive academic outcomes through the use of technology.
• Boston, MA
In 1998, Boston became the first major urban school district to build high-speed
technology networks in each of its school buildings and public libraries. In
addition to the district’s network construction, Boston developed the Technology
Goes Home initiative, providing access, training, and curriculum through public
schools. Boston schools also offered student graduates and their family’s new
computers, printers and Internet access for less than $15 per month. The
cumulative result of these programs was a 15% increase in the number of
graduates attending college from the previous district average of 65% to 80%.14
• Henrico County, VA
Henrico County, Virginia has one of the largest "one-to-one computing" initiatives
of any school district in the U.S. In one survey 97% of mathematics and science
teachers reported that the computers have helped students to learn these
challenging subjects, and 59% report that the laptops have helped "a lot" or "a
great deal.” In addition, more than 80% of students reported that it is "helpful"
or "very helpful" to have a computer to use for their schoolwork. These reports
were corroborated when state standardized test scores increased and dropout
In Maine, where the Department of Education has equipped all the state’s 7th
and 8th grade students and teachers with access to wireless internet-enabled
laptop computers for the past 4 years, students are completing more homework
and misbehaving less than in previous years. Moreover, there is improved
student interaction with teachers, particularly among at-risk and low-achieving
students, and improved class participation and student motivation. In addition,
more than 75% of teachers reported that having the laptops helped them better
meet Maine’s statewide learning standards.16
• Greene County, NC: A Model Success Story
Perhaps most striking is the example of Greene County, a small rural county in eastern
North Carolina. Predominantly agrarian, Greene County has been ranked as the county
most dependent on tobacco production in North Carolina, and the second most tobacco
dependent county in the United States. Generations of Greene County farmers have
harvested and sold flue-cured tobacco.
In recent years, the tobacco industry has seen a significant decline in its popularity and
prosperity. Domestic tobacco sales plunged from $47.7 billion in 1990 to only $18.9
billion in 2000, and the numbers continue to plummet. As the demand for tobacco has
fallen, the number of unemployed agricultural workers has risen. Today, 70% of Greene
County’s K-12 schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunches.
The economy in rural North Carolina is changing and workers must adapt to a new
economic order. A 1999 survey showed that an unprecedented 30% of North Carolina
farmers expected to give up tobacco farming in their lifetime, and 68% were interested in
expanding to other enterprises.
Beginning in November 2003, a diverse team of stakeholders including the Greene
County local government, the school system, grassroots leaders, and social service
providers partnered with One Economy to respond to the economic changes in our
increasingly technology-rich, knowledge based economy. The partnership is rooted in
• Bring ubiquitous access to broadband and computing to Greene County.
• Improve the economic livelihood of county residents.
• Increase the economic competitiveness of Greene County.
• Improve academic performance among county-schoolchildren.
The technology investment began at the school-level by bringing Apple iBook computers
to each 6th through 12th grader in Greene County, with 85% of these computers traveling
home every evening with the students.
The Opportunity to Provide a Laptop for Every American Schoolchild
Despite the unambiguous case for ensuring every American schoolchild has a computer,
it remains increasingly likely that unless a national initiative is put into place, millions of
students, most likely inner-city minorities and low-income residents of rural
communities, will remain isolated from technology and its inherent benefits.
It is essential that our children be provided with access to the tools that are necessary to
navigate and participate in the global communications network. Without deep fluency
in the new tools offered to them through this startling information revolution, our
children will be at a competitive disadvantage and their opportunity for life success will
be diminished. America’s policymakers must ensure that no matter where people live
public school children have the skills necessary to be active participants in the emerging
society of the 21st century.
We can start this process by committing, together, to put on a laptop in every backpack
of every American school child.
Greene County by the Numbers
- SAT composite scores increased by 41 points since the beginning of the project.
- High school proficiency scores increased from 53% to 78.4% since 2003.
- More than 80% of the 2006 Senior Class applied to college compared to 28% of the
2004 Senior Class.
Economic Development Outcomes
- Last year, twelve new businesses were attracted and opened in Greene County after
years of negative business growth.
Improved Broadband Availability
- Broadband access increased from 10% to 90%.
- More than a dozen church and community buildings have become hot spots for free
Internet access and these locations are the host for the free technology training.
About the Authors
Alec Ross is the Executive Vice President for External Affairs and a co-founder of One
Economy, a multinational nonprofit organization that works to maximize the potential
of technology to help low-income people enter the economic mainstream.
Simon Rosenberg is the President and Founder of NDN, a progressive think tank and
advocacy organization committed to meeting the governing challenges of the 21st century.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a public comment on NDN’s blog, at
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