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.