Tuesday 5 October 2010

A tale of two computers

Before reading any further, do yourself a favour and read this article on a school in Harlem.

Read it?

OK, now we can move on.

More on our continuing education dramas.

Our household is awash with computers. We have 3 PCs and 4 laptops - and if I bring my work laptop home, we have 5. Eight computers, for a family of 5. We almost had 9 - except that the 2nd hand server that I was given failed to boot when I finally got around to rebuilding it.

All was well in our happily wired household, until Julia Gillard decided that it was time for the taxpayer to give Junior his own laptop. Pre-laptop, we had the house setup so that the PCs were in an open area where they could be easily monitored, and we had clear rules about what they could be used for (and when they could be used). Junior mostly abided by those rules, although he was banned from time to time for misuse.

Because we were able to manage and monitor his usage, we ensured that he did his homework and wrote up his notes and cleaned his room etc etc etc. Things were pretty simple - get your homework done and your room tidied, and then you can goof off on the computer until an hour before bedtime. At that point, he'd be kicked off and told to go read a book for an hour.

Then Gillard's bloody laptop arrived.

They're supposed to be locked down, but they're not. Within a few weeks, all the kids at school knew how to load games and swap pirated movies and music. Instead of using them in class to take notes, many now use them to play games or watch movies - in class. Teachers now spend most of their lesson teaching from the rear of the class, simply so they can keep an eye on what the kids have on their screens.

When Junior gets home, he's supposed to do his homework - on the laptop. However, unless we sit with him and watch him like a hawk for an hour or so, the homework gets shoved aside and a game starts up. He couldn't do that on our computers because we have them locked down enough to prevent that. He just can't help himself - he is totally addicted to games.

I know that deleting the games won't do much - they'll be back again tomorrow, as he'll just copy them from a mate's laptop.

I also know what you're about to say - "Why not take it off him?" That's easier said than done. For starters, the school gave the laptop to him, not to us. It is actually his. He hasn't paid for it, and he hasn't earned it, but it's his. He signed for it, not me. I've discussed this with quite a few of my fellow parents, and we all feel that there is a psychological block in place that we have to get over before taking it away. I'm also not sure how the school will react - although I doubt they'll give a bugger. They don't care if the laptops are being misused - they didn't pay for them either.

I hate the way Gillard has foisted this problem on us. If Junior needed a laptop (which he doesn't), we would have bought him one. Or given him one of the laptops that we already have. Gillard would have done us a huge favour if she'd given us a voucher, and told us to go and buy a laptop with it. That way, we would have been handing the laptop over to Junior, and we would then have a modicum of authority over how it is used. Instead, we've been royally fucked. I hope Junior treats it the way he treats all our other electronic gadgets - if he is true to form, it will be broken by Christmas. More than anything else, the laptop has contributed to his sucky attitude to school this year. Yes, there have been other factors in play, but the laptop has a major multiplier effect. The sooner it's a pile of electronic junk, the better.

The other thing that I hate about it is that Gillard and Co. clearly put no thought into how the laptops are supposed to be used. A laptop is just a chunk of hardware - it's useless without software. If the education department had spent some money on building or buying some useful education software, I'd be a lot happier. Instead, they have just foisted the dreaded things onto schools and told the teachers to get on with it. A sad indicator of the IT literacy of Junior's teachers is that the principal can still barely log onto their PC, and until last year, was unable to use email.

I swear that these laptops are going to be the educational equivalent of Mao's Great Leap Forward - which was anything but. I am yet to talk to a single parent that's happy with the laptops - they're all suffering the same problems we are. It won't be long before emergency departments start reporting kids turning up with a Gillard laptop smashed over their head by an angry parent.

On the other hand, we're experiencing how useful computers can be for educating kids - if they're used sensibly. Number 2 is now doing Reading Eggs, which is a really helpful aid with his reading. It is not a magic bullet - it's just one of the things we are using to teach him to read. We still read him a couple of books every night (he is a mini-Paco, with 18 linear feet of books in his bookcase), sit down and practice writing letters and words almost every day, and do all the usual puzzles and so on that have words and letters in them. We sing the Alphabet Song and if we are in the car, we spell out objects that we drive past. In short, we're doing our bit as parents to ensure that he can read and write and knows his numbers - and computer based learning plays a part in that. But it's not the be-all and end-all.

Reading Eggs is costing me a bit over sixty bucks a year. It's all web based, so you don't need to load any software on your machine and it will run on an old clunker. You can buy ex-govt and ex-corporate PCs with Linux on them for just over $100. Assuming you've got an internet connection, for $160, you've got the perfect educational machine - and a truly useful piece of educational software.

So there you have it. Government gives away "free" laptops to kids - bloody expensive disaster. Parents pay for computer based education out of their own pockets - cheap success story.

Yes, I know some will say, "But what about the poor?" Here's my answer - if those of us in the educated middle class are having problems controlling what our kids are doing with their laptops, what do you think the feral kids down in the housing estates are like? Do you think their parents are ensuring that they are getting any value out of Gillard's toys? I think not.

No comments: