Monday, March 22, 2010

Netbooks, The New Books

The Richardson ISD (RISD) recently announced a program of furnishing every student in certain grades at certain schools with school-owned netbook computers. The Dallas Morning News covered the news with a story on its main web site and another story on its Richardson blog. Your challenge, readers, is to guess what angle to this story was of most interest to the newspaper's readers. If you guessed tin-foil hat conspiracies and charges of government waste and fraud, you get a gold star.

After the jump, examples of why education's biggest obstacle to learning isn't the student, but his parents.

One reader argues against schools providing students with netbook computers, saying that their families ought to foot the bill instead. He doesn't indicate whether he thinks that families ought to provide textbooks, too. and maybe even desks and chairs. He doesn't indicate what he thinks should be done with the large number of students whose families have trouble affording a decent lunch, to say nothing of computers. With his attitude, No Child Left Behind becomes a cruel joke.

One reader suspects the government is going to spy on students through the computer's web cam. He says he wouldn't allow his children to bring a school-owned computer home unless he was forced to by armed officers with firearms pointed at him. Presumably, his students use family-owned computers. He doesn't indicate what he thinks about the potential risk of students using their own computers to connect to school web sites and, shudder, downloading and installing school-owned software. Are privacy concerns unwarranted? No, but the way you deal with them is through regulation and oversight, not by rejecting any technology that bad people might use to do bad things.

Even The Dallas Morning News reporter, Jeffrey Weiss, chose the least interesting angle for this story. He asks, "Exactly what makes a $600 netbook for Richardson students?" That leads us down the rabbit hole of comparing the netbook selected by the RISD (the apple) with what readers can find online (the oranges). Readers discount the value of extended warranty, support and maintenance. Sure, the RISD should be a good steward of our tax dollars. But I don't need to see every last competitive bid. I don't need to rehash the RISD analyses of the value of support and maintenance. People think schools are inefficient. Given the nature of such public enterprises and public suspicions, it's a wonder schools get as much teaching done as they do.

Speaking of teaching, that's the one subject that received very little attention in these stories or in readers' comments. Think about the wealth of resources netbooks can make available to students. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and countless other reference books just a few keystrokes away. Interactive textbooks with hyperlinks to supplemental information in text, audio, graphics and video. Customized homework. Quizzes with immediate feedback. Two-way communication between student and teacher. These are the topics The Dallas Morning News ought to be asking the RISD about. These are the topics readers should be brainstorming about. Because like it or not, we aren't going to stop the adoption of technology by the education process, nor should we want to try. We should want to accelerate the process of exploiting this technology to solve some of the intractable problems faced by schools today.

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