Laptops may supplant books

5th December 1997 at 00:00
United States. Are textbooks passing their sell-by date?

A Texas technophile believes they are. Tim Cornwell reports

Laptop computers could replace textbooks for the 3.6 million children in Texas schools if the outspoken chairman of the state's board of education gets his way. Dr Jack Christie, a Houston chiropractor, says the shift to computers is on the cards, and he wants Texas to be first.

The first major test for Dr Christie's radical proposal comes in January, when he makes his case to the Texas legislature. He will take along computer company executives ready to "dazzle" them with affordable technology, he says. Whether or not his idea takes off, it has sparked a new national debate over the role of computers in the classroom.

Dr Christie will argue, as he has already at board meetings, that the logic is simply economic: that the money spent on updating old textbooks in slow cycles would simply be better spent on low-priced laptops armed with books on CD-Roms and wireless connections to school networks.

He is, of course, not the first elected official to be taken with computers. Congress Speaker Newt Gingrich, in the heady early days after Republicans first took charge, spoke airily of giving a laptop to every American child, a notion that has not seen the light of day yet.

More practically, President Bill Clinton's administration seems determined to make good on its promise to link every US classroom to the Internet within three years. But the Texas proposal, coming from its top elected school official, has sparked a debate in newspapers and radio talk shows, at a time when there is talk of a backlash against a blind embrace of everything hi-tech.

A few US educators are questioning the expected Pounds 32 billion price-tag for President Clinton's Internet connection. "Techno-reformers", public officials and corporate leaders with little experience of what it means to be a teacher, are the ones pushing hardest for computers in schools, these critics say.

Dr Christie, who has 15 years' service on various school boards, says his idea was born out of projections that Texas, with 3,000 state schools, would spend $1.6bn replacing textbooks in the next six years. At a recent meeting, the debate was whether to spend Pounds 234m on replacing eight-year-old science books or 10-year-old literature books.

"Last year we replaced 10-year-old social studies books, where the Berlin Wall was still up, and the Soviet Union was one country, and Ronald Reagan was just finishing his presidency," he said. "I appealed to the board: if we are going to spend this kind of dollars, why not put it in a format that can be updated to last week, if you so desire."

He has been fielding calls to interested computer companies, he says, among them Apple and Microsoft, and a few have already come up with "something that is affordable and durable and meets the needs of the present-day textbook". He reckons that by buying three million laptops, Texas could get them for about Pounds 300 each.

To the obvious objections that computers would be stolen, lost, or constantly breaking down, Dr Christie responds that children already lose expensive textbooks. They could take maintenance classes in computers, and would be more likely to be robbed of sneakers and jackets, he argues. Perhaps more convincingly, he says the shift to computers is on the cards anyway, and adds: "I just want Texas to be first. I'm not a techie, I just see the big picture. "

The pace of computerisation has accelerated rapidly in American schools. Fifteen years ago, there was one computer to every 125 students in the US; now there is one for every nine. Many school districts are ploughing millions of dollars into computer purchases, while conventional libraries are struggling to buy books.

Critics of this trend are mostly few and far between. But they point to estimates that 80 per cent of school hardware lacks a hard-drive or the network connection, meaning the equipment has quickly become obsolete, certainly for the purposes of computer training.

Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, and a former teacher, poses a broader historical argument. Certain types of reliable and efficient technologies, from the blackboard to overhead projectors, from the mimeograph to photocopiers, have become part of the teacher's everyday tool kit.

Others have not. For radio, film, and television, he said: "You had the same kind of cycle of enormous promotion and hype, followed by eventual disillusion." The magical properties associated with technology led people to believe that this was going to revolutionise teaching and learning. "No such thing has ever occurred," he said.

Among the recent calls to Dr Christie's office was one from Doug Fallon, head of external relations for Brewster Academy, in New Hampshire. Six years ago, the 175-year-old private high school embarked on a sweeping computerisation exercise, and is now launching a consultancy service for other schools. With 350 students, it has more than 500 computers installed on campus.

Each new class of 12 and 13-year-olds is supplied with the latest laptops; they can access the school network from more than 2,000 points - virtually anywhere they can sit down. But Brewster, which has attracted visitors from schools around the world, still uses textbooks.

"The price of a PC is only a fraction of the costs and challenges," Fallon said, "and you'd never read Shakespeare off a computer screen." Brewster itself started small, with a pilot programme within the school, and there are many potential pitfalls. "Taking a state with 3.6 million students and undertaking an initiative on this enormous scale, it has to be approached in a step-wise fashion," he warned. "It's much harder than plug and play."

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