Fine Gael recently announced their “radical” proposals for the education system, putting forward a 7-part plan which they claim will future-proof our place as leaders of knowledge. Without dissecting the plan completely, one idea of their’s (and, I think, Labour’s) caught my eye – the provision of laptops to every secondary school pupil. As part of this policy, Fine Gael hope to “radically redesign course material around new technology” in order to make the laptop “the schoolbag of the future”.
Of course, like all good press releases, the Fine Gael statement on education is thin on detail, fat on buzz-words and in reading them it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the message without realising you’ve been short-changed. So why laptops? Well, when you need answers it’s always best to return to the tried and tested formula of 5W and 1H (who, what, where, when, why & how) – or at least that’s what they told me in college… all the time… forever.
Given that we already know the what (laptops for school kids), the when (after the election), the who (Enda Kenny) and the where (Ireland), we’re left with just two questions that need answering.
Fine Gael is delighted to tell us of their futuristic plans, but they fail to explain why they’re needed. Sure, children need to know how to use a computer in this day and age and maybe carrying a nice laptop around would be easier on their spines than a tonne of books, but they’re hardly reason enough.
If the two reasons mentioned above are the justification for free laptops then it is akin to opening a walnut with a sledgehammer. Why not just have a weekly basic IT class as part of the Junior Cert curriculum (and there’s not need to make it an exam subject either)? Why not just tackle the cause of heavy bags rather than burning the maps in a vein attempt to correct an error?
There’s no real advantage to basing school work on computers that I can see, if anything I can see disadvantages. What’s better about a textbook that’s on a screen than one that’s on a page? What’s better about an essay that’s typed and handed up on disc than one that’s hand written?
From a personal point of view, I think pupils will have more than enough time in life to not use a pen and paper for the rest of their lives (is that a bit romantic? Perhaps) and I have difficulty reading text on-screen for any length of time so reading text books would be a pain. Sure, there’s the potential for interactive software but that 1) already exists, 2) arguably adds nothing to their education that practical teaching doesn’t already and 3) runs the risk of spoon-feeding pupils.
This may seem a little glib, but does it not complicate the educational process to involve computers all the time? In the everyday classroom, wouldn’t the pain of start-up/shut-down sequences, viruses, malfunctions etc. just make things even more difficult?
This is the more important question, in my opinion. Even if it is shown that computer-based learning has it’s advantages, it still carries so many complications too; all which lead to cost.
According to CSO statistics, the figure for second-level students in 2003/04 (the latest year available) was 341,724. Given that the last few years has seen a steady decline in second level numbers (and in order to make calculations a little bit easier) we’ll assume that the current figure stands at around 340,000.
Let’s say the Government bulk-buy laptops to that figure at â‚¬500/machine; that’s a grand total of â‚¬170,000,000 for the machinery. But as anyone with a computer knows, that’s not the end of it. Laptops, like all technology, can break; this means there are maintenance costs. Perhaps the Government get the machines insured against this; do you really think any broker is going to give them a low insurance rate for machines that are being used by kids, even if it is in bulk? Even at â‚¬50 a year/machine you’re looking at an annual cost of â‚¬17m. And what about computer lifespan? Even if the machines are only replaced once every student-cycle (6 years – at which point they’d probably be ancient in technology terms) you’re still looking at huge costs on a fairly regular basis.
Another aspect of how isn’t based in cost, but in practicality. Will the children own the laptop, or will it be effectively “on loan” from the school? Will they be allowed to take their’s home and if not, how will those without a family computer get work done? If they can, what about damage done outside of school time? Who’d pay for that? What if it’s stolen or broken; does that mean they’ve lost the year’s work?
Call me old fashioned, but I don’t see what advantage there is to having a laptop instead of a copy book, all I see are potential problems that you just don’t get with a pen and paper. There’s nothing wrong with writing, just like there’s nothing wrong with ticking a box on a piece of paper to vote. Everyone here got through school without a laptop on hand and didn’t suffer as a result. Some even got through without any kind of internet access (no wikipedia?!!!) and they’re none the worse for it. Sure, there’s plenty that needs to be done to our education system in order to improve it, but not this.
If anything I think Enda Kenny is suffering from the same illness as Bertie was when he spoke about e-voting recently… Does Kenny think we’re becoming the laughing stock of Europe with our silly little pens and silly little copy books?