Friday, September 23, 2011


My children, the two who aren't in college, attend Charlottesville city public schools, which announced this summer that they were issuing tablet computers to all students from grades 6-12. Community reaction was mixed at best--at least according to the local news blog I read. My own opinion was that the tablets were an expensive project of dubious value, but I didn't have a particularly strong reaction until it was announced last week that parents were required to sign contracts accepting a fee of $1,100 for lost, stolen or damaged tablets. Parent reaction to this announcement was swift and hysterical. I was so fired up I could hardly think about anything else until I spoke to the school superintendent and learned that there is actually a "schedule" of payments and that the first time a child loses, or has his tablet stolen, the school will replace it for free, and even after the second time, the parents will pay a part of the cost. It is only after three occurrences of loss, theft, or damage that a parent would have to pay the full replacement cost. That sounds more reasonable, but now I have new things to worry about.

Last night was a mandatory meeting for parents, so we could sign our contracts and learn about the new tablets. School officials are touting this program as a fantastic new opportunity to experience "blended learning," whatever that is. The parent audience was informed, in ponderous tones, that when our children go to college, they will be expected to know how to use a computer! Furthermore, the modern workplace requires familiarity with computers! The audience reacted placidly to this shocking news. We were shown a powerpoint presentation that included two brief movies that demonstrate the dangers of the internet (pervs and bullies) and a third, completely ridiculous propaganda piece that implies that use of this sort of technology will lead to a brighter world in which students become teachers and teachers become students, schoolwork is fun, and no one will ever be stymied by algebra again.

Next came the Q&A portion of the evening.  The parents turned out to be a sophisticated audience and their questions exposed the program to some very uncomfortable scrutiny. The first question was the obvious one: "My child owns a lap top. She already knows how to use a computer. Can't we decline this tablet and use our own computers?" The answer is no, mainly because the tablets are now required for testing and you can't install licensed software on a computer the school does not own.

Another parent said that when he was in grade school, a fabulous new technology had just been introduced to the classroom; a new teaching tool that was going to revolutionize education. What was this amazing innovation? The television. He went on to say that computer technology has turned out to be a problem at universities, mentioning specifically the engineering school at UVA, where he is a professor. The engineering school has had to implement a "no electronics" policy in the classroom. Furthermore, the parent pointed out, it has been shown that paper and pencil learning is more effective. He wondered where was the evidence--not anecdotes, evidence--that tablet computers for students were going to be of any value. When he stepped away from the microphone, the other parents in the audience applauded defiantly.

And so it continued in the same vein. Parents referenced a New York Times article that discusses how constant access to computers is harmful. They mentioned the Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making us Stupid." They asked for peer reviewed studies. They wondered about security--not pervs, but hackers. They wondered about the degredation of reading and writing. They worried that our children are guinea pigs. School officials had responded to the concern that computers are now a serious distraction in university classrooms, by saying that using tablets now would teach kids how to control themselves and use the devices properly when they get to college. Parents quickly shot holes through that argument. Parents also wondered if the fact that nearly 25% of the district's students don't have internet access at home would widen the academic divide between privileged and poor students.

What worries me is that there appears to be NO evidence that having tablets is beneficial, and it seems likely that they are harmful. Of course, the kids already use computers in school, and most of them have computers at home. Those who don't have computers at home still have enough access to them to gain the basic skills needed for college or the workplace.  What's new about the tablets is that kids will be taking them home, but to what end? Is wirelessly submitting your homework somehow going enhance your learning experience? Is constant exposure to the (often erroneous) information on the web going to result in kids who are better educated or kids who can't read more than three sentences without clicking on a hyperlink?

It is natural to resist change, especially change that cost the school district $2.4 million. From the Atlantic Monthly article linked above, I learned that Socrates saw the introduction of writing as the top of the slippery slope to idiocy because people would "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom." I smiled when I read this, but I can see his point. 

The article also mentioned that a friend of Nietzsche's noticed that his writing changed after he started using a typewriter. Nietzsche replied, "You are right. Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." (How I wish a parent had quoted Nietzsche to the school officials!)

My other issue is that our schools have essentially redesigned the classroom environment so that it will be impossible to educate a child who doesn't have a tablet. This is a public school system. Public schools are obligated to educate all children. They can't suddenly introduce an expensive new device and say that despite our objections, we must accept them or our students will be unable to take tests or complete homework assignments. In other words, refusing a tablet means failing in school. Parents who are convinced that the tablets are harmful will either have to knowingly expose their children to harm or take their children out of school. Surely the schools are legally obligated to provide an option for parents who don't want the tablet.


  1. Great points ... my son is a freshman at a science charter school, and we knew going in that laptops are part of the deal. Each family had to pay $100 for an insurance policy (loss, damage) for the laptop, which I thought was reasonable. Last night we ran into our first crisis - he finished a long essay, due tomorrow, hit submit, and the system rejected his post. Couldn't go back, couldn't see the essay question again. We don't know where it went. I'm hoping the teacher will help him figure out what to do. It's the little stuff like this that might drive us crazy. The glitches might not ever get worked out of the system - think how crazy we all get with day to day computer problems.

  2. So there aren't any visually impaired students in grades 6-12?

    That issue of accessibility aside, I have a master's in instructional technology, and I think this is a terrible idea.

    I'm reminded of when I first had a computer in the classroom - when I was in second grade. The teachers had to have extensive training in order to teach us kids how to use this newfangled technology. Guess what? We figured it out without their assistance, and pretty much surpassed the teacher's computer skills within a few weeks of the computer being introduced. Kids are sponges, they'll figure it out.

    What they need are real skills in math, science, and critical thinking. The tablet won't give them that. It *could* be a useful tool when applied with outstanding pedagogy, but it's not going to magically turn every child who has one into a genius. I suspect that teachers will struggle to implement this tool that they didn't ask for and don't really know how to use.

  3. This is the most ridiculous school policy I think I've ever come across.

    First of all, the idea that they could make you pay to replace a tablet they won't let your refuse, and sign a paper accepting that --what?!!! I can see that happening at a private school, but at a public school?!

    Second, the idea that each student with a tablet they have to bring back and forth will somehow enhance learning is ludicrous. I get so frustrated at the people who are making policy for public schools. They're obviously extremely stupid.

    And I'm not against technology --I teach online classes at the college level. I like teaching that way, but I don't fool myself that it's the technology that helps students learn.

    Grrr . . . .

  4. I couldn't help but notice that at Back to School Night, technology played a huge role in this year's plans, particularly for our math teacher. Yet, this is technology that is already delayed. First, the middle schoolers were going to get their tablets this fall, then it was "definitely" November, and the latest estimate I'm hearing is January at the earliest, but most likely will be later.

  5. Nice comments all! Anita, I agree that these frustrations and glitches are going to make us crazy. I hope your son was able to recover his essay.

    Mama Marathon, I totally agree that kids need real academic skills. I don't even think computer skills are as valuable as the school system tells us they are. My job involves configuring and troubleshooting software and helping physicians and nurses use the electronic EMR. I did not need any special computer skills to get this job. My training at the software company only required that we be familiar with *basic* computer functionality like how to use a keyboard and a mouse. Not to mention the fact that the technology the kids are using now will be out of date by the time they get to college.

  6. I'd love my kids to have easily updated tablets instead of fifty pounds of textbooks, but that is the only benefit I could come up with. Oh, and then I wouldn't need to sign novels in and out and do lost book paperwork.

  7. Why pay 2.4 million dollars for technology when they can't explain how it will be used? They said that the tablets won't replace textbooks. I would much rather the CCS spend that money on hiring and retaining great teachers. And, I mean actual human people.

  8. Oooh...such good many questions unanswered. We have an area school doing something similar and I also question the logic. I imagine this is the latest trend, like block scheduling and cooperative learning. It will stick in some districts and fade to black in others within the next 7 years.

  9. Sorry I din't comment sooner, but your excellent post made me stop and think.
    I teach ICT, and am very pro-technology, but I've resisted pressures to introduce more laptop/netbook/tablet computers into our school for a variety of reasons.
    1. We couldn't afford to buy them for the kids.
    2. Our families have enough financial presures without asking them to pay for a netbook for every kid (there are a couple of schools in Wellington where the parents are asked to provide a $1000 laptop for their kids. This is not a private school, but is run by the State.)
    3. Our IT infrastructure isn't up to the job.

    As far as writing skills are concerned, I wouldn't worry.

    When ws the last time you sat down and wrote a big essay or a multi page report. ALmost everything I writ know, teaching resources, reports,agendas and minutes, letters etc. are all composed and written on a computer.

    No doubt there were complaints when the steel nib pen replaced the quill. I can actually remember when I was at school the arguments about replacing steel nib pens with ball point pens. SOme of the oldest moaned that "The kids wouldn't learn to write properly"
    They were right. We didn't write in copperplate like my parents' generation, but we could write more and faster.
    Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.