1:1 on a budget?

As I give more thought to the idea of in-class computing and just how we can successfully prepare students to enter a computer driven society, I have to wonder whether we can make 1:1 computing work and whether we should really try.Fellow ZDNet blogger George Ou responded to my last post (1:1 computing a necessity?

As I give more thought to the idea of in-class computing and just how we can successfully prepare students to enter a computer driven society, I have to wonder whether we can make 1:1 computing work and whether we should really try.

Fellow ZDNet blogger George Ou responded to my last post (1:1 computing a necessity?) by noting

I guess it's gotten to the point where people expect the tax payers to buy every child a $1000 to $1500 laptop. I guess when it’s someone else paying, it’s easy to demand anything to your heart’s desire. Is it wrong to criticize this kind of spending? I don’t think so but I’m sure you’ll be painted as the evil guy if you do.

Even he, however, who would probably be considered fairly traditional in his views on education, is not completely against the idea of computing on every kid's desk. In a followup email to me, he mentioned very reasonable alternatives to expensive (and wasted) laptops:

I would be ok with assigning a $299 Asus Eee (larger screen model) for students or a $299 desktop system whose families fall under a certain income level and a partial funds matching for people who are barely above that threshold. That system however should last them 3 years. If they lose it or damage it mid-way through, they're responsible for paying 1/2 the cost of a replacement unit. If they lose it or damage it on the first day, they're responsible for paying 100% of the replacement cost. I think it's financially reckless to demand $1000+ laptops for each student.

The Asus Eee (click here for the manufacturer promo) and other small, inexpensive laptops that seem to be one of the few really positive and tangible results of the OLPC initiative, just might make 1:1 computing in this country (and other developed nations) both realistic and sensible. As George points out, kids simply don't need anything more on their laps than Internet access, productivity software, and collaboration tools. More sophisticated needs can be addressed through specialized computer labs or even terminal services, with the small laptops running RDP to access server-based applications.

If we don't provide students with at least this level of computing, however, it becomes quite difficult to expect the documents they produce to be typed, let alone professional and appropriate for the kinds of business settings they will encounter after school. It won't be OK for them to handwrite proposals, memos, or training materials because their secondary education did not prepare them to treat the computer as the utterly natural communication tool it can be.

Yes, most kids have computers at home. However, these computers are used for recreation. Computers at school (at least in theory) are used for content creation, research, and collaboration, and student use of these tools can be carefully guided. Want your students to look beyond Google for research? Guide them through the research process in class. Want them to create a website instead of a boring report? No problem. Want teams of students to collaborate on a document in real time? Or toss together a quick presentation summarizing a group discussion? All available with the right facilities.

This doesn't necessarily require a computer on every lap. Yet for those teachers who either struggle to get time in a computer lab or just don't bother because it isn't worth absorbing class time to get there, a more ubiquitous approach to classroom computing could be truly beneficial.

Other readers of my last few posts have disagreed, feeling that replacing pencils and paper with laptops short-circuits learning and writing processes, inspires, cutting and pasting instead of actual synthesis, and otherwise undermines education. One even wrote,

Before beginning this post I thought about the content and set the order of presentation. I type completed sentences. A number of typos occur because of insufficient attention to what's happening onscreen.

If this argument were complex and nuances mattered, I would handwrite at least those sections which required the most care.

I'll assert that composition over the keyboard is a significant reduction in the quality of the work because of the limit on thinking.

While this may be true in some cases and for some people, I think this reader is not only in the minority, but may actually be missing the value we can pass onto students as they become increasingly adept with computing tools. The ability to easily correct, move and reorganize, save, recall, and collaborate on documents is something that can only be achieved with a computer. This is something new and useful that we can give our students as we teach them to use computers as tools rather than toys and show them life beyond MySpace.

Does every kid need a laptop? No, of course not. However, low cost, highly portable devices like the Asus Eee just might make this the best solution to the growing challenge of integrating computers into education as deeply as they are integrated into business and industry.

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