Laptop dilemma calls for a bit of business sense

A desktop computer for every student or a laptop for every student?

That sounds straightforward enough, but it's something of a trick question

when posed to school officials, as is happening now across the country.

People faced with this decision usually take a Business 101 approach:

Do the benefits that come with mobile computing outweigh its drawbacks?

The problem is, schools generally do not have a good enough grasp of either

side of the equation to make a sound decision.

The benefits, they say, go something like this: Laptops enhance students'

interest in learning in the classroom and increases their motivation to

study at home. The systems also ensure that all students have equal access

to technology, even if they do not have computers at home.

The drawbacks, meanwhile, seem easy enough to understand: Laptops, subject

to the wear and tear of the school bus and home life, will cost more to

maintain as well as to purchase. And theft will always be a problem, forcing

schools to shell out money on a regular basis to replace missing systems.

These are fair enough assumptions, as far as they go. But schools need

to take a closer look at this "business" proposition.

School officials acknowledge the cost of repairing and replacing laptops,

but nobody knows just how much money it will add up to. For example, who

will handle the repairs? If classroom activities or homework assignments

depend on laptops, school officials must be certain they can get a laptop

fixed and back into a student's hands as quickly as possible. Such services

do not come cheap.

Likewise with replacing lost or stolen systems. For example, if a school

experiences a rash of thefts in February or March, it must come up with

the funds to replace them, even if year-end funds are running out.

The funding must be constant from year to year, not something that rises

or falls based on a school's overall budget. Once a school buys into a laptop

program, it must stay fully committed or the whole scheme falls apart.

Clearly, teachers and parents are looking for every opportunity to get

students more involved in the classroom and their homework, and anecdotal

evidence suggests laptops can do that. But teachers, parents and school

officials need to decide if these gains are substantial enough — and certain

enough — to justify the costs.

At the very least, schools should take another look at desktop systems.

For significantly less money, a school might be able to set up a sizeable

computer center, where students could work during class or after school.

A computer center still provides an opportunity to incorporate computers

into class and after-school activities but requires a much more manageable

investment. Though less dramatic, such a proposition makes much better business

sense.

John Stein Monroe

Editor

civic.com

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