Free Laptop Idea Not a Good One

By Edward Perlman

The following piece was published by the Portland Press Herald Online on March 24, 2000.

Gov. King's laptop giveaway would be an educational Trojan Horse.

If you don't know what that means, just look it up on your home laptop computer. Simply fire up the machine, wait for the software to load, plug into your phone, dial up the Internet, ignore the moving advertisement pictures, log onto a search engine, and enter "Trojan Horse."

Sift through the entries about condoms and horseracing until you get to the ones about the ancient Greeks, and if you still remember what you were looking for, try to find the answer even though you will now have instant access to much more interesting information at your mouse fingertips.

Giving away computers to seventh graders is not about whether the Internet is good, or whether computers are an integral part of our future. We nearly all agree about that.

The laptop giveaway plan is a Trojan Horse because it hides many unstated requirements, and may well have unintended consequences.

As the owner of a small business that depends heavily on sophisticated computer use, I applaud the rapid development of technology. But it may surprise you to know that when looking for a new employee, computer skills are no longer high on my list.

My best employees arrived with the most basic computer skills and have learned the rest on the job.

What makes them good workers is that they can think for themselves, grasp the purposes and strategies of the company, and respect communication enough to speak honestly, listen well, write and spell well.

The intimidating fear that our kids may be losers in technology is overstated. Well-educated children are quick learners. And access to information is not education. Why should we be impressed, for example, that kids can tour the Louvre museum via the Internet, when many schools don't even have an art class that teaches what the Louvre is, why it would be a meaningful place to visit, and what those little textureless digital images might be like in real life?

An off-budget gift of personal computers by the state would bypass community debate. It would force schools to build their curriculums, budgets and schedules around the computers, whether or not that is their priority. Schools would have to budget time and money for teacher training, so that the laptops that can be used productively. Otherwise, it may be like giving each kid a set of power tools instead of hiring a teacher to teach shop.

When I worked for the Chicago Master Learning Reading program, I learned that most kids of that age move from empirical to logical thinking, but those who do not are vulnerable to educational setbacks.

With computers becoming ever faster and more powerful, we increasingly think empirically. We can try out anything and the computer shows us results in a flash.

Indeed, the Internet is designed to foster empirical thinking. It's easy to play with software, surf the Web and spend time on emails both useful and useless, regardless of priority. If computers make us think empirically, what do they do to children learning to think logically?

On a practical level, what happens to the giveaway laptops when they are stolen, break, or crash? What happens if parents decide to commandeer their child's free laptop? What do we say to families who, by choice, have no Internet access at home? Should seventh graders feel entitled to have a computer regardless of the cost of purchasing and maintaining one?

Maybe school libraries should have laptops that students can check out. Perhaps we could consider more computer availability in high school.

If the governor asked me for an educational initiative he can leave as a legacy, I'd point to the fact that students learning musical instruments consistently score better academically than their peers. Give every child a musical instrument and good instruction. I guarantee they'll be able to handle any computer technology that comes down the pike.

Edward Pearlman owns Portland America Distributing, a national wholesaler of CDs and tapes primarily from Scotland and Nova Scotia.