In Maureen Conway's social studies class, things have changed.
As students at Mounds Park Academy prepared for a role-playing seminar on the country's Progressive Era, they didn't wait for handouts prepared by Conway to research their topic.
They didn't head to the stacks at the school's library or sign up for Internet time at the computer lab, either. Instead, they opened their laptops at their desks and got to work.
"You can't replace books as research tools. And it's not going to replace having somebody in the room that can answer questions or generate interest in a subject," said Conway, who has taught at the St. Paul school for 18 of its 19 years. "But it opens up all kinds of stuff you can have access to."
As hundreds of thousands of Minnesota school children return to school Tuesday for the first day of classes, most will enter the school grounds without lugging their own laptop computer. While more popular at the college level, only a handful of K-12 schools in Minnesota and around the country are starting large laptop programs.
But many expect that to change.
Laptop computers are getting more affordable, and technological advances are making them a more practical choice. Longer battery life means no need to plug into an electrical outlet for each use and wireless networking now means computers can be linked to each other and the Internet without modems or cords.
Mounds Park Academy, a private school with 670 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, launched its wireless laptop program last week with the start of the school year. Each of Mounds Park's 240 high school students received an Apple iBook laptop with the costs of the program covered by a $600 boost to the school's $12,530 annual tuition.
But laptops are not just for private schools. Washburn and North high schools in Minneapolis are entering the third year of a four-year program to give more than 900 computers to members of the class of 2002.
"We had a decent computer lab before," said Helen Fisk, the director of Mounds Park Academy's high school. "But we got to the point where we decided that computers were an essential tool."
As students take notes on a computer, how will teachers know they are listening to a lecture and not sending an e-mail? They might not be taking notes, Fisk said, but teachers never knew whether students were actually paying attention when they were writing out their notes longhand either.
"If you aren't paying attention, you won't do well on the test. It's your responsibility," said Julie Kim, a senior at Mounds Park Academy. "Most people here are pretty responsible. I can't imagine people sitting around chatting (online) all day."
Coleen Kosloski, the school district's director of information media, said it's no longer a question of whether to put laptops in schools, it's a question of how.
"You give these kids the tools and what they can produce is stunning," Kosloski said.
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