AUSTIN -- Last month, I testified at a hearing in the Texas State Capitol about the proposal under consideration here to replace public school textbooks with laptop computers and CD-ROMs. I attended this event at the invitation of Dr. Jack Christie, the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education and the man behind this idea. Dr. Christie, a chiropractor, packed a hearing room with legislators, state education officials, legislative staff, reporters, and many, many presenters, most of them vendors from the computer and software industries. His intent, he told me on the telephone before the hearing, was to "dazzle" the audience with computers and educational software.
This was a dismal experience for me. I was the only skeptic in the entire program, out of more than 40 speakers. As one might have expected, there was a huge outpouring of support and praise for Dr. Christie's plan to lease a laptop computer for each of the nearly 4 million children in Texas public schools -- this praise and support came from computer manufacturers, of course, who shamelessly lauded Dr. Christie as a "visionary" and other superlatives.
There was also a fair amount of pure Texas hucksterism on display, such as one vendor who poured water on a laptop to show its durability (he also invited a portly legislator to jump on the machine), and a demo of a software product that, inexplicably, turned ordinary addition problems into animated cartoons.
It dawned on me early in the course of this event that almost nothing will prevent Texas from wasting huge sums of money on trying to get every kid in the state to use a laptop computer. Other school districts and states are watching this closely, and tens of thousands of parents seem to be jumping on this bandwagon. Ohio is also considering a version of the Texas plan; Beaufort, S.C., has already implemented a "laptop for every child" program; and schools all over the country are experimenting with the idea.
Last week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsed this trend. "One of the goals should be to replace all textbooks with a PC," Gingrich (R-Ga.) told the Supercomm trade show at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta a week ago. "I would hope within five years they would have no more textbooks."
There is a frenzy over getting computers and the Internet into K-12 schools that is reaching a point of pure excess and foolishness. In the interests of helping to promote some balance and rationality in this debate, I am presenting my own admittedly opinionated FAQs (a widely used Internet technique called "frequently asked questions"). These are offered as points of consideration for parents with school-age children.
Are computers important in my child's education?
Yes. Computers are transforming communications and the economy, and every child should be exposed to this technology to understand the significance of this transformation. Every high school graduate should know how to use a computer and the Internet, understand how a computer works, have some grasp of how to find information on the Internet, and generally know how computers are used by businesses, the government, educational institutions and people in their homes. At a bare minimum, students should know how to type, how to use a word processor, how to "drive" an operating system and how to navigate the Internet.
Does this mean I should buy a computer for my child?
Not necessarily. What young students need is access to a computer -- routine, easy and free access. If students can use a computer at school, especially after school hours, or at a public library, or in a public access center near home, this should be sufficient if a household cannot afford a home computer, printer, and Internet connection. The advantages for students who own their own computers are not so great that students who use public access computers will suffer greatly by comparison.
What is more important is that students at home use their free time to study, to read and to visit interesting places and people. They should also be encouraged to pursue their interests with discipline and perseverance. Kids who have their own computers waste a lot of time using their machines, just as adults do. If your child always has his or her nose in a book, you can be proud and relieved. If your child is always in front of a computer screen, you might need to worry.
Won't my child be disadvantaged in the new high-tech economy if he or she is not an expert with computers?
No. Most people who use computers as part of their work learn what they need to know about the technology as part of their job, or, if they learn at school, in the last year or two before starting work. The technology changes too rapidly for us to expect that children in grade school or middle school will be learning anything relevant to what they'll encounter in the workplace.
To succeed in the new high-tech economy, people need two things: a solid grounding in fundamental fields of math, science, economics, history, literature and other traditional subjects, which are all taught best out of books; and a great capacity for change, flexibility and "life-long learning." To shortchange these subjects, or these qualities, for the evanescent skill of using some particular software package or operating system on a computer would be a great disservice to young people.
The growing mania for getting a computer for every child in school is dangerous and foolish. It will impose colossal and unneeded expenses on schools, which are already strapped just trying to provide computers in the classroom or library. The requirements for technical support for millions of computers used by kids are unthinkably immense and expensive -- there probably aren't enough technical support personnel in the entire U.S. to manage such a task, and schools can't pay these people what they can get in the private sector. The idea of replacing textbooks with laptop computers is a misapplication of a useful technology to the wrong problem, and the enthusiasm for "edutainment" software is alarming and discouraging. Learning is difficult and always will be.
There appears to be no greater danger to public education today than the misguided and inexperienced "evangelism" of grandstanding political leaders. There's a lot we need to do to improve education in this country, but excessive enthusiasm for computers will be a serious liability, not an asset.
Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The 21st Century Project focuses on increasing public participation in science and technology policymaking.
This column was first published in The Los Angeles Times on June 15, 1998. It is reproduced here with the author's permission.