SD schools: check your figures

School is about to be in session and science teachers are frantically removing Pluto from their textbooks and visual aids (or they're adding Ceres, Charon, and "Xena").  But what about the IT folks in your school?

School is about to be in session and science teachers are frantically removing Pluto from their textbooks and visual aids (or they're adding Ceres, Charon, and "Xena").  But what about the IT folks in your school?  

If you live in South Dakota and you are an IT staff member or a computer science teacher, you'd better be sitting down with your colleagues teaching accounting and looking closely at what the State of South Dakota is really offering you.  (See Cost-sharing plan gets 5000 laptops for SD students.)

According to the article:

Through the South Dakota Classroom Connections project, the state will provide $1 for every $2 invested by the local school district toward the purchase of ... laptops.

The 5,000 laptops were  (or are to be) purchased by SD school districts to hand out to children.  (Which children qualify and which do not is not discussed but I presume that there are more than five thousand schoolchildren in South Dakota.) 

It is also not clear whether the state of South Dakota spent one dollar for every two spent by the school or if fully half of the money spent by the school was reimbursed by the state.  Either way, it is not nearly as good a deal as it sounds. 

If we start with the premise that half of all dollars spent by the school district were reimbursed by the state, then 5,000 students received a new laptop computer instead of 2,500 which would have benefited if the school had not had the additional state funding.  Right? 

WRONG!  And here is why ...

At educational discount prices from a national computer manufacturer, a robust desktop workstation costs about $650.  A similarly-equipped laptop from the same supplier costs $990.  Had the school districts of South Dakota not been compelled to buy laptops to get the matching funds, they could have bought 1.52 desktops for every laptop the state compelled them to buy in order to get the matching funds. 

Now you say ... "But that is only 3,800 computers instead of 5,000." 

But wait!  How many children can take advantage of those desktop computers?

The answer, of course, is a great deal more than 5,000 students state-wide would have benefited from having access to 3,800 additional desktop computers than will those 5,000 students (selected by whatever criteria) to benefit from this state-sponsored 'giveaway' program. 

If only two students per day used each of the 3,800 desktop systems, that's 7,600 students who would have benefited from an expenditure of tax dollars half the size of the one intended to serve 5,000 students.  If the school investing in these workstations makes them easily available in a student computing lab or a library, they might be used, on average, by as many as five students during the course of a six-hour school day (9:00am to 3:00pm, with an hour for lunch.)  That's 19,000 students served EACH DAY by these 3,800 workstations! 

Yes, at any given time, only 3,800 students can use these workstations instead of 5,000 individual students but that assumes that those 5,000 students are going to be using those laptops throughout the school day.  Despite vendor claims to the contrary, I've never gotten more than two hours of battery life out of any laptop computer that wasn't more than a few months old.  So, not only is the desktop system accessible to more students throughout the day, it is accessible for more hours per day! 

These kinds of state-sponsored one-time giveaways do little to uplift of quality of our educational system, nor are they effective in addressing the needs of the recipients of these programs.  In the end, our schools need life-cycle funding for information technology and our teachers need adequate training in the use of the tools.  Give our kids -- all of our kids -- free and equal access to the tools and the training to use them and they will use them. 

Until adequate funding has been restored to our schools to justify such extravagance (see A laptop in every pot?), Education IT needs to focus on providing the most cost-effective tools to the greatest number of students during the school day as possible. 

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