Project proposal

We propose to borrow 7 XO laptops (http://wiki.laptop.org) from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, for a period of 21 months, to test whether laptops can assist academically gifted students who have learning disabilities with the traditional challenges that accompany that combination of diagnoses. Although the results should be reasonably generalizable to any public or private elementary, middle, or high school setting, this project will focus on middle school students at a public school.


Twenty percent of gifted students are estimated to be “twice-exceptional,” or 2E. (http://education.families.com/blog/educating-twice-exceptional-students) School system tracking, which assigns high-scoring students to attend certain classes at a certain school, results in a higher-than-average concentration of 2E students in these classes. The 2E diagnosis is used in education to describe people who are gifted academically, but have learning disabilities. These people tend to fall through the cracks in the school system–they are extremely intelligent but tend to not show up on tests because of certain deficiencies in brain development, learning style, behavior, etc. They are often diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s syndrome, and other things along the autism spectrum. Significant among their challenges are dysgraphia (physical problems that impede handwriting), disorganization (including misplacing completed assignments before they can turn them in, losing track of due dates, misfiling their work), short-term memory issues (this most notably shows up in math), and a host of other obstacles.

Obviously, if one’s writing is illegible, then typed work will be a significant improvement. The loca school system does address that with devices called “Alpha Smart”s, which are a sort of memory typewriter that shows about 3 lines at a time of what the student types. Work can be saved and printed, but not transferred electronically.

These devices help somewhat but their scope is too limited to be able to address issues beyond handwriting. They have none of the simple tools available on computers, such as planners, calendars, or reminders. They are no help whatsoever in mathematics; they will make the student’s answers readable but since they’re not conducive to actually doing the work on them, the student must work on paper then type out the answers, thus doubling their workload. It’s not possible to electronically turn in work, send a teacher a draft, or save work where you can get to it from home and work on it.

Many school districts have policies that outlaw electronic devices by default. If laptops could help this population of students, it must be not only demonstrated that grades can be improved but the devices must be deemed by the school administration to be unthreatening–meaning not causing more problems than they solve, due to distraction, improper use, theft, damage, viruses, etc.

Project Objectives:

The grades of 2E students trend toward a reverse Bell curve: they get mostly A and F grades. The failing grades are primarily because of things that individual laptops could address:

  • daily planners are missing entries
  • daily planners are not legible, and work isn’t done
  • work gets completed but not turned in
  • work is illegible or misread as being incorrect
  • homework assignments and/or materials get left at school
  • attention drifts during class and key concepts are missed

We propose to measure the effect on grades and outcomes of the following:

  • daily planners on computer
    • teachers simply share out the assignment information instead of relying on each student to write it down
    • teachers can more easily check the planners for accuracy and completeness
    • parents have access to complete, current, legible planner
    • alarms, reminders, etc. are in place so milestones don’t pass unnoticed
  • the rate of completed work not getting turned in should near zero
    • loose papers will not get misplaced if the work’s not on paper
    • even if it’s misfiled on a computer, work can be found via search
  • undesirable outcomes caused by legibility of handwriting should be improved
  • the OLPC camera can be used to photograph worksheets, drawings, and other things that are not in electronic form, thus keeping these things from being lost or misplaced
  • quality of notes should improve since the computer can be used to record vital lectures so they can be checked against the notes, thus helping fill in gaps in notes caused by inattention (grades from notes and grades from tests should improve)

Plan of Action

The counselor and special education teacher will work together with parents to ensure the proper structures and procedures are in place within the school system before the computers are introduced.

The special education teacher can help identify potential participants from within her student population.

Potential issues with the laptops will be addressed via a profile that only contains approved software. (e.g., no games) If necessary, we could even create a profile for each class, so science programs couldn’t be launched during language arts, etc.

Approved educational software such as mind-mapping tools or specialized math software will be evaluated and loaded onto the computers.

Baseline will be set by way of grades. Significant numbers of 2E students at the school in question ensure that a viable control group can be in place, and that proper sampling and correlation between the students can be in place so results can be correctly measured and compared over time.


Why is this project needed?

Twice-exceptional students have one of the highest dropout rates among any student group, regardless of race, culture, or socioeconomic status. They are either labeled problem students, or they are ignored because their skills mask their problems, and their problems mask their skills, so they cruise under the radar.

Two of the most significant problems faced by 2E students, organization & tracking, and legibility, can be significantly addressed by computerizing their daily school activities. There is currently no structure in place to do this, and no studies have been done to demonstrate whether or not this approach would help.


Our state does not invest sufficient money in the schools, and what they do invest goes toward raising outcomes for the most vulnerable. We do not have the luxury of raising outcomes for everyone.

Most public school advanced programs not do gifted education. They do “highly capable” education, which essentially takes the people who are already best at school and increases the amount of work they’re given. This approach does not address the needs of twice-exceptional children, even though they are 20% of the students in the advanced programs. This is a vulnerable population that can soar academically if the right structures were in place, but for the most part their skills are being either overlooked or wasted in the current system.

In the greater OLPC/Sugar community?

As far as we know, there’s been nothing in the OLPC/Sugar efforts that’s been targeted toward addressing the unique challenges faced by twice-exceptional children.

Outside the community?

Academically-gifted but learning-disabled children exist everywhere, in roughly the same proportions, and are not well-served anywhere that we’re aware of. If we can achieve, demonstrate, and document positive outcomes, it will provide sufficient supporting evidence for other schools to consider similar programs, especially since school funding is tied to grades–the improvements could offset the cost of the equipment.


In terms of the technology, there is no reason why it cannot be done on cheap Linux netbooks. However, we prefer OLPC (http://wiki.laptop.org) machines because:

  • they are more durable
  • their unique looks make them less theftworthy since they stand out
  • they are designed for portability
  • they are designed for children
  • they are designed to be educational tools
  • they can’t be easily turned into Windows laptops
  • they are so alien to the Microsoft environment in the school that the school network administrators will consider them less threatening than something more compatible with their network
  • the “cool factor” will help their users establish a sense of pride and purpose that goes beyond that of an ordinary netbook.

Communicating our progress

We will document our progress online, when midquarter and quarter grades come out (at a minimum), via a section of this blog dedicated to tentative ideas, results, and changes.

Ideally, the student participants will write up the results as an extra-credit science project, in the usual hypothesis/procedure/results/analysis format. The teachers and parents will also have opportunity to contribute, and we will combine an edited version of this with an outline of the basic steps needed to successfully replicate our project, potential issues or roadblocks, lessons learned, etc.

We will publish this on the blog, again with the student participants doing the bulk of the work on their laptops, and spread the word via the 2E Listserv and other learning-disability and education technology communities of interest. We will also work with user experience interest groups and technology design and development groups, should the results of our work be noteworthy. We may submit an article to an academic journal as well.

Although certain of the success factors will be directly tied into the form factor unique to the XO, the general concepts and the lessons learned should be applicable across multiple technologies.

We will pass on the laptop(s) to a local OLPC group or other interested contributors in case we do not have need for the laptop(s) anymore or in case our project progress stalls.

Proposed Timeline

Months 1-2:

  • Gather a list of tasks typical to what target students need to do.
  • Highlight those tasks which are problematic and seem addressable via laptop use.
  • Identify tasks to address, measurements of success, concerns, possible barriers, etc.
  • Individual team members use the machines for a few weeks to accomplish tasks similar to those identified, in order to assess strengths and weaknesses of existing software, needs for new development, best tools and best practices, etc.
  • Create software plans, goals, ideals etc. based on what we learn from using the machines ourselves for a month.

Months 2-3:

  • Work with school district processes to get through whatever needs to be done to allow the project to move forward, addressing their concerns, adjusting our plans to incorporate their ideas and input, etc.
  • Set up computers according to the plans and ideals determined in the first month (above)
  • Revise setup as needed for school district. (This will probably involve several iterations before it’s fully approved.)
  • Identify potential student participants, and get preliminary student, teacher and parental approval.
  • Establish aspects of student performance in need of improvement, select measurable indicators of these items, and create plans for ongoing measurement.

Months 4-16:

  • Students use computers for schoolwork, homework, etc.
  • Student, teacher, parent input and observation are collected and reviewed by the team, resulting in ongoing adjustments as necessary.
  • Outcomes (including grades) are watched and monitored for improvement.
  • Midquarter and quarterly grades are tracked and plotted against the problems we’re trying to address. Again, adjustments will be made as necessary.
  • Significant retooling, if necessary, will occur during winter and summer breaks. Smaller adjustments will be made on an ongoing basis.


  • Initial deployment
  • Midquarter grade releases
  • Quarter grade releases
  • Parent-teacher conferences
  • School-year end
  • Year-end report (generated by students and our team, posted online)
  • School-year start
  • Final report and conclusions
  • Spreading the word
  • Project concludes
    • if outcome is positive, start lobbying school district
    • transition to plan for permanent, ongoing program
    • transition student participants to hardware they don’t have to return

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