Hi-tech gamble to swap books for computers

An editorial from The Inter-Mountain

ELKINS, W.Va. — Surely West Virginians have learned technology, especially when the government is involved, is not the answer to all our problems. That needs to be kept firmly in mind before we boot up a program suggested by state school Superintendent Michael Martirano.

His idea amounts to this: Computers good. Textbooks bad. Especially to the growing population of Mountain State residents who cut their teeth on the digital age, it may sound like common sense.

During the West Virginia Education Summit this week in Charleston, Martirano said he wants all public school students to have access to laptop computers, tablets or similar devices. Those in grades 3-12 could take them home from school. Younger children would have to work with the equipment while in class.

One way to raise the money for that could be to stop buying textbooks for schools, the superintendent suggested. “Why would we invest all of our money into a textbook that is gonna be obsolete, that has to be replaced in future years, as opposed to looking at an online delivery model, a device, a tablet, whatever it is, that constantly has the latest information at the fingertips of our teachers and children?” he asked.

Obviously, it would be great if every public school student had some type of computer and access to the Internet, both in class and at home. That should go without saying. Online resources are wonderful – increasingly indispensable – supplements to other learning tools, such as textbooks.

But what about cost? Simply to buy the cheapest Chromebook available for every student in Mountain State public schools would cost $48 million. It would be easy to spend twice that.

And the initial purchase is just part of the expense, as Hundred High School students and educators found out several years ago when they were part of an experiment in equipping everyone with laptop computers. It failed dismally after just a few years. The equipment, subjected to hard use, broke down and could not be replaced.

Despite what Martirano said, electronic devices tend to become obsolete as least as quickly as books. And it is far easier to damage a laptop beyond repair than to destroy a book.

What about ensuring every educator knows how to teach to children equipped with computers?

What about students who do not have access to the Internet at home? How would that hurdle – and it is a very tall, important one – be overcome?

Too often, people who ask questions such as these are labeled Luddites – or, worse, cheapskates unwilling to invest in children.

But they are concerns – potentially very expensive ones – that need to be answered honestly. Computers are no more a quick fix for schools than books were several hundred years ago when mass production of them began.

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