July 23, 2010
The laptops for students programme – How feasible?

Fri, Jul 23, 2010

This week saw both the Government and the Opposition revealing plans, they each say they have, to provide a laptop computer to each school child in this country.{{more}}

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves spoke of the work the Government has done so far in researching the project and even displayed a sample of the type of computer his Government hopes to deploy, at a press conference on Tuesday. This was less than 48 hours after the Leader of the Opposition said the laptop in schools programme would be a medium term objective of his administration, should they be elected.

The concept of a free laptop for each student is exciting, and is certain to get the attention of voters. Both parties know this, so much so, they are now accusing each other of stealing the other’s idea. However, is this plan feasible for a developing country with a myriad of basic needs still to be met? Further, is it sustainable?

Let us be clear, it is a good idea in principle. It is surprising that more technology isn’t used in schools, especially since many persons and businesses cannot function without computers. Exposing all our children to computers and the Internet at an early age will certainly help to level the playing field and narrow achievement gaps.

Neither Prime Minister Gonsalves nor Opposition Leader Eustace went into much detail about the implementation of their individual plans, so it is uncertain whether the laptops will be used to complement the material found in traditional textbooks or if they will eventually replace the textbooks. Will the students own the laptops and be able to take them home, or will they be for use in school only?

Projects like this make it easier for students to learn at their own pace with the computer serving as a tutor delivering the lesson according to the student’s individual needs. The material could be repeated as often as is necessary for the concept to be mastered. However, this will mean that teachers will have to spend much more time planning lessons. On the other hand, programmes like this tend to make assessment easier, as tests are graded in real time, without teachers having to take home bundles of papers to mark manually.

Ironically, although at face value it seems like an expensive project to implement, a laptop costing between EC$270 and $540 is comparable to annual cost of new textbooks for each student at the secondary level. In California in the USA, schools are following the model of schools in South Korea and Turkey and becoming textbook-free. Heavy, expensive and quickly outdated textbooks are now being replaced by the lighter, cheaper and changeable digital textbooks in these countries.

It is not clear whether any of the textbooks on our local curriculm are available in the digital form, but the advantage of digital textbooks is that the book can be downloaded, projected, printed and, importantly, updated as needed, without students having to purchase new editions.

On the downside, though, is the potential Internet access gives to students to explore beyond the bounds and parameters of the lesson and the cost of replacement of the equipment. Classroom technology, especially laptops for individual student use, must be replaced every two to three years. Can a country like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with so many basic needs still to be met, afford the approximately EC$20 million it will take to provide the hardware for an estimated 35,000 children every three years, even if this is done in partnership with donor agencies? The annual cost of the book loan scheme is only a fraction of this, and even so, parents are required to buy many of the more expensive books on the list.

The training required to bring teachers up to speed, the technical staff required to keep the equipment and networks up and running and the cost of networking the schools and purchasing the educational software all need to be considered. Theft and vadalism are also factors of concern, especially if students will be allowed to take the computers home.

The laptop for students’ projects would be great if it could be done, but how feasible and sustainable is it, even in the medium term?