The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains Governor Rendell's recent proposal to place laptop computers in the hands of school students all across Pennsylvania:
Mr. Rendell's $25.4 billion budget, though, calls for PHEAA's share earnings to be diverted to buy school laptops. The project would take $100 million over five years. ... State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said the governor's plan may need to be retooled. "It would be great to find a way to do what the governor is suggesting, but it may not be feasible to fund it through the source he is suggesting," he said after the committee meeting. "The governor's intentions are good, but I'm still trying to understand where exactly PHEAA would be able to get this money."I personally use a lot of technology and am practically wedded to my own laptop, so I have plenty of initial sympathy for a program that provides more computer technology to students - but that initial sympathy doesn't entirely survive more detailed reflection and scrutiny. Computers are expensive to buy and maintain, so it's easy to imagine that this program might be a problem.
It is argued that in the modern world, the ability to use computers and internet technology is vital enough to require greater integration of computers into schooling. This is a valid premise, but are laptop programs the best method? Why not expanded computer labs in school, not to mention improved computer access in libraries and community centers that would help an entire neighborhood? Has anyone done any research to demonstrate the one is better than the other? Not that I am aware of, but doesn't it sound like a necessary precondition before launching a costly program?
It is also argued that because of penetration of computer technology in society, the way children learn and approach learning has been changing and therefore schools need to introduce more computer technology in order to better reach students. Once again, there is something to this argument - but isn't there also something to the argument that schools must be proactive, not merely reactive? What I mean is, shouldn't schools also try to instill learning skills that require patience and reflection rather than interactive point-and-click sessions?
Unless we are careful, the changes introduced by computer technologies may harm the learning process, not help it as some hope. An earlier Post-Gazette article explores some of the problems of computer technology, at least when it comes to college:
Dr. Gay describes one experiment in which 250 Cornell students carried laptops that researchers could track by location. When a professor of an early morning computer class decided to post the notes to his lectures online, researchers noted that the laptops of students in the class (and presumably the students themselves) often stayed in their dorm rooms, rather than appearing in class. ... That professor, said Dr. Gay, continues to post his lecture notes online, but has also incorporated attendance into his grading system.Also:
It was an issue that Duke economics professor Lori Leachman was well aware of when she decided to podcast her classes, which she did for the first time in fall of 2004. ... [R]ather than posting the lectures during - or immediately after - class, Dr. Leachman waited a few weeks and posted them in bunches. "I teach at 8:30 in the morning and I didn't want to disincentivize coming to class," she said.Many other states have created laptop programs for their students, so it may be the Gov. Rendell doesn't want Pennsylvania to fall behind. This is understandable and laudable, but in our quest to stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive, we must also be careful that we don't fall over the edge. Laptop programs may be a great idea, but first we must be sure that they are best of all the alternatives, we must clearly understand the risks and costs in order to be able to minimize them, and we must be absolutely clear about what we expect to achieve so that we can continually and properly evaluate the program's progress.
Without these sorts of conditions in place, we seriously risk having a directionless program which merely flails about, achieving little to nothing while costing a lot and perhaps harming education - yet one more good idea with good intentions going bad for lack of proper planning and research.
-- Guest Blogger, Austin Cline