Thinking Tech

A netbook story or the failure of computers in education

A netbook story or the failure of computers in education

Posting in Education

Rapid changes in technology over the last 30 years have not served educators well. Billions were wasted on systems that became obsolete. Not enough was spent on training, and support was also neglected. The result is that today's public schools are little changed from those of 20 or even 30 years ago.

One reason I'm a writer is because I can't write.

It's called dysgraphia.

My parents dealt with it by getting me a typewriter.

Flash forward 35 years. My son is dysgraphic. But there are no typewriters.

PCs wiped out the typewriter market but the PCs of the late 1990s were too heavy, expensive, and fragile to take to school. Even in high school my dysgraphic son got dinged by teachers because of his handwriting.

This is just one example of how computing has failed education. The rapid evolution of PCs in the 1980s and 1990s caused investments in "computer-aided education" to be wasted, as this year's software could not run on last year's hardware.

The training curve of teachers never caught up to what upper middle-class kids could access at home, and schools fell behind.

If my kids were 10 years younger there would be a solution to their problem. Netbooks first emerged in force last year. They're fully functioning PCs but they have no moving parts. This means they are rugged by definition. And they're dirt cheap -- even a Windows version can be had for under $300.

This still doesn't answer for kids whose parents can't put $300 in their hands. Most of my son's high school classmates were like that.

One solution tried in my son's senior year was to get rid of Windows, installing Linux terminals in classrooms linked to a central server.

I was impressed with this solution when I first saw it but my son recently revealed that it didn't work in practice. A shortage of support funds meant many of the terminals just refused to boot. They weren't stolen, as older PCs were, because once disconnected they were useless. They became paperweights.

The rapid changes in technology that have marked the last 30 years have not served educators well. Billions were wasted on systems that quickly became obsolete. Not enough was spent on training, and support was also neglected.

The result is that today's public schools are little-changed from those of 20 or even 30 years ago. Most public school teachers still lecture from blackboards. Most lessons are still found in books. Backpacks have just gotten heavier.

Fortunately smarter solutions may be coming.

Internet-based learning systems require no upgrades at the school level. Any terminal with a broadband connection will do, so long as the system is maintained. This will give teachers the time they need to learn how to adapt what's available to what their kids are doing, and in time change their teaching methods from "the sage on the stage" to "the guide at the side."

As to my son? He's a high school graduate now, starting college classes next semester. And he'll be bringing my netbook with him. He can take notes with it, output them to a stick memory if they need to be printed there, or he can access tests and lessons from home.

It has taken much longer than I expected but this marriage of PCs and education may finally be about to become a beautiful friendship.

Feel free to add your own computers-in-education horror stories below.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure