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More on computers in education

Feb 10, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

A cop stopped me for speeding. He said, ‘Why were you going so fast?’ I said, ‘See this thing my foot is on? It’s called an accelerator. When you push down on it, it sends more gas to the engine. The whole car just takes right off.’

– Stephen Wright, who seems to know a thing or two about cars.

Computers in education is a hot topic for Network World readers. Following my Backspin column Making computers easier, I was inundated with feedback. My apologies if I didn’t reply to you personally.

Your thoughts were very interesting, with half being in favor of computers in grade school education and the other half against. About 10% thought that going to Wintel from Macs was a bad idea and a few of you were, shall we say, a little intense about this issue. One reader wrote at length about the advantages of using Citrix in an educational setting, a solution that I hadn’t considered (although Citrix has problems as far as multimedia is concerned).

This week I will follow up on a few issues. Several of you asked for details about what we’re doing at my son’s school. We’re getting a killer price from a local white-box vendor for 14 PCs. The 1.7-GHz, Pentium 4-based machines with 17-inch monitors, 16X DVD drives and Windows XP Pro cost $945 each, and a server (dual Pentium 3-based 1.2-GHz running Windows 2000) with a UPS cost us another $4,129.

Throw in Deep Freeze (an awesome way to lock down a PC system), antivirus software (Panda), a laser printer, MS Office XP and MS Publisher for each PC, and our entire budget is less than $21,000.

We’re reusing and extending the existing network and hubs, moving the remaining good Macs to create a publishing studio and using the new server to also support the school administration’s PCs, providing reliable centralized storage and backup.

But even though we got a great price, PCs in schools are expensive. Think about what PCs cost – not just financially but also in management time. Teachers don’t usually have lots of spare time, and once you have more than a half-dozen PCs (or Macs) your days get full.

And forget about using donated PCs. Second-hand equipment might work if you have lots of volunteer labor and a really computer-savvy teacher, but that’s usually not the case. While old PCs sometimes can be used for administration, they are effectively useless in the classroom.

This raises the question of cost benefit. Are computers actually better tools than text books? If you have to choose one or the other or even one and half of the other, which is the reality for many schools’, which is it going to be?

My final thought concerns a point raised by several readers: Learning to use a computer is valuable even when you can’t read and write yet.

Sure, I can’t argue that there is a value, but I question that value compared with that of traditional educational methods. And for younger children I particularly question the value over being in the physical world. Building with wooden bricks, drawing with crayons and interacting with people is infinitely more valuable to their education than being entranced by finger-twitching eye candy.

And don’t give me that old line about hand-eye coordination being enhanced by using a computer. Want better hand-eye coordination? Catch a ball. Build with Legos. Draw a picture.

If you’re going to do computer education, you need to educate kids not about using applications but about what underpins them: Mathematics, logic, electronics. What usually is done is more like teaching someone how to drive a car with an automatic transmission and claiming to have taught them “automobiles.” The reality is that they can’t drive a stick, let alone service the engine. They just don’t know what makes ’em go.

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Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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