Tuesday, December 04, 2001

I read a lot of coverage today of the decision by the Maine Department of Education to buy 38,000 iBooks from Apple and use Airport, Apple's 802.11b networking to let everyone have Net access from anywhere in the schools. That's because I'm from Maine, so I have a continuing interest in where I come from, and I'm something of a Macintosh zealot, so the story gets me both coming and going.

At the same time I'm not totally convinced of the value of computers in education--they are certainly needed for basic grounding in OS etiquette, but I grew up in Maine and we had a hard enough time covering the basics. Really. I could tell you stories about my high school that would curl your hair. It was certain teachers who really pulled me through--but I certainly can't speak for the way the school districts are run, which is reminiscent of Soviet-era companies with less warmth and compassion. I worry that the computers will be traded for firewood, or eaten.

One poster at Slashdot who went to the same school district I did in Maine summed up my feelings well from both directions:

"i would have to agree that this is mostly a good thing. maine public schools (like most others in the country) are horribly underfunded and misfunded (i watched helplessly every year as my old school voted to lower teachers' salaries and cut educational program after educational program while increasing the budget of the football team. high schools in rural maine are like winos begging for change from the state saying "we just need the money for some food; we won't buy booze with it, honest". if you give them a cash handout, it will just go towards buying new football equipment. even if you specify that the money's only to be used for education, they'll just cut the same amount from other areas of the education budget and move it to sports.). i'm happy to see them getting any support at all from the state government.

my fear is that in most rural schools, the teachers know next to nothing about computers (they're certainly not being paid enough to buy their own computer and home internet access is still all but impossible to get in many areas of the state). just having access to computers is a lot more than many of the students used to have and will be a major benefit. but teaching with computers is an entirely different game than teaching with chalkboards and textbooks. if the teachers don't have the knowledge and experience to work them into their lesson in a positive way, they're missing out on a lot of the potential benefit.

without the right educational training, there's a real possibility of harm being done. computers can easily distract them from the teaching of the actual classes. or worse, it can lull the teachers and administration into a false sense of security: "look, we're high-tech. all our students have fancy new laptops, we must be educating them really well; no need to evaluate our pedagogical practices!"

One thing that did make me feel good is that the contact person at the original link went to school with me. Yellow Breen is smart as a whip, has a freaky Jeff Bezos laugh and the vision to boot--plus he's been working in government after escaping our high school for Harvard all those years ago. With him behind any part of the wheel on this initiative, I have to admit I feel better. He's a good egg.