The real problem with student laptops

Laptops are not just typewriters. They are, through the Internet, a window on the world. They are, by their nature, multi-taskers. They are, and will remain, expensive. Thus the Golden Rule applies -- he who has the gold makes the rules.

It comes down to cost and control.

The case of Blake Robbins vs. Lower Merion School District is rapidly gaining attention because, as the lawsuit alleges, a school administrator used the webcam in a student's laptop to find out he was doing bad in his own home, and threatened the kid over it.

(Picture from the Save Ardmore Coalition.)

The district's defense was it was protecting the laptop, that its policy was to only use the webcams for security. If someone stole young Robbins' box, the webcam could identify them and get it back for him. The administrator's use of the service was "regretted."

While viewers on both the left and right scream "big brother," I want to focus on the truth behind the district's defense.

Laptops are expensive.

One reason I write for a living is that, when I was 8 years old, my late father got downwind of the fact I was flunking handwriting and bought me a portable typewriter for Christmas, along with a record on learning to type. My school let me bring it to class. Within a few months I'd produced a novella.

My condition is called dysgraphia. My fingers don't have great motor control, although they can go up-and-down all day.

Flash forward 35 years. The condition is inherited. My son has it. But no one makes portable typewriters you can take to school any more. I spent a decade seeking something sturdy and usable for him, without success.

The netbook I took to China last year worked well. It was light enough, it was sturdy enough, it was cheap enough at under $300, and the keyboard was decent. But my son had already graduated high school.

Besides, the netbook was limited. The cost of chip memory meant it contained "only" 2 gigabytes of main storage. Over a period of months, Microsoft grabbed nearly all of it with security updates.

Sure, I could run Linux. While in China Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin showed me a netbook identical to my own, on which he ran Linux.

But even with Linux, the problem remains. A client operating system grows with time. Any administrator is going to want a "full set of features" before saying "laptops for all," as Lower Merion did.

In this case the Lower Merion School District (LMSD) chose MacBooks, with software controlled by a central server. This was done, ostensibly, to keep kids from changing their configurations and adding software the district might not like.

Which brings up another problem, beyond cost. That is control of what's done with the unit.

Corporations give employees locked-down machines all the time, often with Internet access limited to a corporate VPN that has censorware on it. The LMSD was following the policies of corporate America, treating students as employees.

Laptops are not just typewriters. They are, through the Internet, a window on the world. They are, by their nature, multi-taskers. They are, and will remain, expensive. Thus the Golden Rule applies -- he who has the gold makes the rules.

TANSTAAFPC. There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free PC.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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