The public high school I used to go to (in 9th grade only) was, shall we say, interesting. I didn’t particularly like it, for various reasons.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m going to talk about that school’s laptop policy. Basically, they give every student a laptop to keep throughout the year (with a mandatory $50 insurance policy on it) and use in class. The school district is now extending that program to include middle schools and even, I am told, elementary schools (at least grades 4 and 5). That means they are giving an essentially free laptop to every student over the age of ten.
Some people would say that’s a waste of taxpayer money. It may be, but that isn’t what bothers me so much. It’s that the laptops aren’t useful. And this shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, what are they supposed to be used for?
To teach the students how to use technology? It does that, I suppose – it teaches them to use Microsoft Windows. My parents asked if we could clear Windows from the computer and install Linux on it – and the school said no. So the program is a failure in that respect – it is intended to teach the students how to use technology, but instead it brainwashes them into thinking Windows is the only option.
What else? To make the students more productive in class? Hell no! Everyone spends more time playing games on their computers and surfing the web than anything else. I have nothing against playing games and surfing the web – I do those myself on occasion – but they really shouldn’t be done during school. It is telling, I think, that all the best teachers at the school required all the laptops to be put away during their classes.
Any other conceivable use for them? None I can think of. Perhaps you can enlighten me. So, in my opinion, that particular school’s laptop program can be deemed a failure.
So, is there a possible good implementation? Perhaps. But it would have to be radically different from the current one.
Using laptops during class is never going to work out well. They will always be a distraction, and they have minimal, if any, benefit. Taking notes is no easier on a laptop than with paper and pencil. There may occasionally be need to use computers during class, but if they are really necessary, have a mobile computer lab (a bunch of laptops on a cart that you bring to the classroom when they’re needed).
Having laptops to teach technology to the students is a different questions. It is, perhaps, possible. But what you need is for the laptop to be a toy they can take apart and figure out how it works. In comes free software to the rescue.
I saw a video of talk by the lead FSF lawyer about something like this. Basically, laptops would be given to kids. They would have to be safe to take apart physically, so you can learn actually how a computer works. They would have to run free software, so they can be taken apart digitally, and so you can mess around with it, experiment, and figure out how to program yourself. That’s how I learned. Our family box has for the longest time ran Linux, and I slowly gained an appreciation of how much you could actually do with a computer. I now actually know what I’m doing, sort of.
Since I was able to treat the computer as a toy, I now see it as a functional tool. And an almost infinitely powerful one.
So, with this, the school’s role would be to provide these laptops that would then be used both for typing up papers, etc, and for finding out how a computer actually works.
I don’t know whether such a program would actually succeed. But it would surely be better than what this school currently has.