I just finished reading With state budget surpluses, a windfall for edtech? and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Aside from the fact that state surpluses are still pretty few are far between here in the Midwest, a number of states across America are starting to once again put money into what's become known as 'edtech'. Good news? Sure -- but is the kind of spending being proposed the kind of edtech spending our schools need?
I recently wrote about Nicholas Negroponte's grand vision to provide every child in the third-world with a $100 laptop computer (see The lame $100 laptop) and in that article I pointed out what I view to be some serious logistical problems with his One Laptop Per Child initiative. Mr Negroponte's underlying assumption is that the children of the third-world would benefit greatly by having ubiquitous access to the Internet. By itself, it is hard to argue against this assumption -- especially since, to my knowledge, no cost-benefit analysis of Mr Negroponte's OLPC proposal has been offered up to compare to other ways to help educate the world's poorest children in the world's poorest countries. But what about in the USA?
I also recently commented about my own state's giveaway program (see Indiana high schools save state $1m by running Linux for background) -- the INAccess program hopes eventually to equip every high school student with a computer but in my blog (Million-dollar Linux) I did not bring up the larger question.
Does the goal even make sense?
I recently read that South Dakota had a similar program in the works and now I read that the states of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have similar goals in mind -- to provide hundreds of thousands of laptop computers to individual students.
Unlike the jungles of the third-world, in the United States access to the Internet is, for all practical purposes, ubiquitous. It is not free (even free dial-up service comes at a cost) but it is remarkably affordable by almost any standard. For those who cannot afford a computer, or who own a computer but cannot afford access to the Internet, one can walk into almost any library in America and gain high-speed access to the Internet. Why not in our schools?
"In December 2005, broadband penetration in US homes rose 0.68 percentage points to 65.57%, up from 64.89% in November. This increase of 0.68 points is less than half the average monthly increase of 1.28 points in broadband penetration over the last six months. At the current growth rate, broadband penetration among active Internet users in US homes should break 70% by late March of 2006 ..."
(Read my blog Broadband penetration isn't the whole story for a more thorough discussion of broadband penetration in America.)
With such a high percentage of American households with Internet access of some kind (and apparently a computer in the home), why are our legislatures hell-bent on giving each student in their state a laptop computer? Not even Herbert Hoover was proposing such a government giveaway when he made that now famous 1928 campaign promise:
"A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage!"
So what do we need to do with our new-found edtech money?
We need to make sure that each and every school (and library) in the United States has robust lifecycle-funding for computing resources. On a state level, this could mean that each year, they provide one-third of their school districts with so many dollars per student for edtech. Even if funding must be doled out over five years, this approach insures lifecycle funding in perpetuity, regardless of the ebb and flow if state finances. The concept of lifecycle funding is even more important than the level of that funding. It is also important that these funds not be co-mingled with other school-bound funds or we run the risk of these funds being misappropriated for other priorities (which need to be funded on their own merit.)
Ultimately, we need for our students, regardless of the socio-economic make-up of their district, to be able to walk into their school library or computer lab and access the Internet to do their research, or to open up a variety of personal productivity tools so they can prepare their assignments. Ideally, they could even access these school-owned resources remotely from their family's computer at home.
But why not give them their own computer?
Because, first and foremost, most of your students already have access to a computer at home -- but setting that aside, in a South Dakota pilot (Do laptops boost learning?), 80 percent of the students provided with a laptop used it at home for less than four hours per week for school work. Conversely, 83 percent of those students used it more than four hours per week while at school!
If that limited resource were deskbound, two computers could be provided for student use 30 hours per week for every one laptop given to students and left largely unused by students when they were at home.
In an environment which is already underfunded, it makes more sense to dole out small amounts of lifecycle funding on an ongoing basis than it does to spend a large sum of money to provide premium-priced computers once -- and to do so with the absolute knowledge that in no more than five years, these computers will be obsolete (or broken) with very little likelihood that there will be money available to replace them.
It's sobering to think about how things might have turned out of Andrew Carnegie had decided to give his fortune to individual school children in the form of books instead of giving it to the nation's libraries which could be accessed by all in perpetuity instead of to a single generation.