Only a theory...

by Chris Adamson

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You would think that as a typical Mac zealot, I'd be happy

There, on the front page of my newspaper this morning, a picture of an iBook, accompanying a story that my school district plans to buy $70 million worth of iBooks over the next few years for middle schoolers, in a plan similar to the famous one launched in Maine a few years ago.

Don't get me wrong - it's another quality win for Apple. And, if you're going to do this, the more secure, reliable and easier-to-use Macs are going to keep maintenance costs down.

And obviously, I'm not partial to that ridiculous argument that "kids should be taught what they're going to use in the real world." These are middle schoolers, ten years away from their college graduations and the "real world". Retroactively apply that logic to 1995 and you might be teaching kids DOS, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Harvard Graphics. How many of those even exist today?

The problem is, I really don't like the idea of computers in schools at all.

I re-read the article a few times and while there are details about the gradual roll-out of the computers, parental deposits and liability, and the software to be included... I cannot find anything indicating what the point of this venture is. Is it to teach programming? (don't laugh - that's what computers were for in my early 80's high school... you actually got in trouble for using them for word processing) Is it to teach basic computer skills? Are there going to be e-texts available so the kids don't have to lug 40 pounds worth of textbooks around?

I think for $70 million, there at least ought to be a specific, attainable goal for this program.

I came around to this line of thinking years ago, when I read of high schools that were closing down their band programs so they could afford the support costs on their computer labs. That's a damned outrage.

"The kinds of things the students will be using out in the work force today, they'll be using in our schools," says a Deputy Superintendant. Maybe that's so, but you know what else they'll be using? Words. Sentences. Abstract thoughts and critical arguments. Math. Philosophy. Science. A functioning sense of right and wrong. An awareness of history and the lessons learned from it.

All of which we will now have $70 million less for. But we'll have iTunes.

You see, there are a few other things you need to know about this case in particular, as opposed to other big-time educational computer buyers like Maine and Michigan. Those places haven't ranked dead freaking last on the SAT year after year like Georgia has. Oh wait! We were 49th last year! Yay us. Gainsayers will claim that it's an unfair comparison, because in some states, only the college-bound take the SAT, while all Georgia students take it, meaning that their lousy students don't show up in the numbers and ours do. Great, maybe that'll almost get us out of the bottom quartile? Maybe, maybe not.

The fact is, our schools stink, and many people here with the money to do so put their children in private schools. Granted that's true everywhere (I grew up outside Detroit and went to a private school), but here the whole "send your kids to private school if you can" idea is not a personal choice so much as it is a commonly accepted cultural norm.

And one other thing you should know about us. If the term "Cobb County" seems familiar, it should. This is the same school board that tried to put anti-evolution stickers in science textbooks that read:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

It's so wrong in so many ways it's funny - I don't know whether to hope for similar warnings about theories like gravity, supply-and-demand, and Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, or to hope every religion with a creation myth to get to pitch it as science ("OK, kids, book report on Dianetics due Friday, and don't forget your turn in your Astrological charts"). Or maybe the idea of state schools preaching critical thinking is even funnier ("Be critical just about this, but otherwise, buy lots of products, don't cause trouble for the state, and shut the hell up.")

Oh, and as Steve Jobs always says, one more thing...

Right next to the story on the iBooks was a story there's a fraud investigation underway involving the Atlanta Public Schools and its use of E-Rate technology grants. This is a federally funded program that's supposed to support educational technology, paid for with a telephone surcharge. The Atlanta Journal Constitution series found that the Atlanta Public Schools wildly overpaid for an over-elaborate network, much of which it doesn't need, and went on such a spending spree that they are now warehousing stacks and stacks of network gear that they don't need and can't find a use for, and which grows more out-of-date every day. $73 million involved in this scandal so far...

So, if I thought this were a fertile garden of the mind in full bloom down here, maybe iBooks would be the ideal tool to foster collaboration, expression, and learning. Since it's not, I can't help but see this as a very flashy way of spending my money for little or no gain. Thanks, but no thanks.

Computers in schools... good or bad? Let's have it!


2005-02-11 08:02:19
Evolution sticker
Wanting our children to approach any accepted dogma (scientific, religious, computing, whatever) with the phrase "an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered" in mind can't be a bad thing.

Whether or not you believe in evolution, the Judeo-Christian God or Linux, being able to critically think about a topic is a skill that most students do not pick up in the current educational system.

2005-02-11 09:38:22
Evolution sticker
That's quite true, and scepticism of unfounded claims is at the heart of science, but there is no particular reason to pick out evolution in this way. It would be much better to teach scepticism and careful analysis as general skills, and advocate their application in all areas of learning.
Picking out particular subjects for special treatment, based on external biases, implies that applying external biases in this way is a good and healthy, or at least acceptable thing. I don't believe that it is.

Simon Hibbs

2005-02-12 12:59:16
Don't miss the point
As much as I'm all in favor of pointing out the theoretical nature of things I disagree with (such as evolution), focusing on that part of this article is kind of missing the point.

Even though I'm a computer geek and a mac lover, I've always been skeptical of computers in schools. It's always impressed me as trying to teach kids the wrong thing. They're already going to use computers half their spare time at home; use school time to teach them real things.

2005-02-13 15:38:34
Evolution sticker
Also being a resident of Cobb County with middle school aged children, I have the same feelings on both the computers and the stickers as the author. The author left out the part about the State Superintendent of Schools suggesting that the word Evolution being taken out of science books. The author is right-Georgia school administration is a joke.

Just remember: Gravity is also a theory, where's the sticker for that? I guess Cobb County is more concerned about what a Preacher says about a subject than a VAST majority of the experts in that subject say.

As far as questions about the laptops, how much is 70million compared to total budget? I still think an excellent teacher with a chalkboard teaching math is more beneficial than any piece of plastic could.
But anyway, least the computers are macs, my kids won't be bringing any malware and virii home.

2005-02-24 18:04:32
But will you be there to express your thoughts
You make a lot of good points. My question, as a fellow citizen of Cobb County, is will you be at one of the hearings to express your thoughts?
2005-02-27 16:10:17
Good stuff
You made some very good points. I blogged on this just now, and argued that this money is just going to buy expensive toys for kids that don't need any more distractions or excuses in school. I hope I'll see you at a meeting on this. It's probably too late for me to go and protest it, but I'm going to one of the informational meetings at a local school. You can see a schedule of those at the school board website.