Laptop Lessons

Contemporary theories of education and instruction are only just beginning, once again, fully to understand and to appreciate the power of teaching by example. The examples that educators, by their own behavior, set for students are often more influential than the information they attempt to convey. What they do, in other words, has a greater impact than what they say.

This raises some troubling questions about the examples the Duxbury School Department is setting for students with its plan, in next year’s budget, to spend something like a million dollars to pay for 1200 Apple MacBook Air laptops, one for each and every student in grades 9-12, at a cost of $900 to $1000 each. What sort of lessons does this example teach to our students?

It teaches them to spend at least twice as much as really is necessary, even assuming that purchasing laptop computers for every student makes sense in the first place. In today’s market very capable laptop computers can readily be purchased at retail for no more than $400 or so.

A Hewlett Packard 2000-2d19WM laptop with a 15.6” screen, 4 gigabytes of memory, and a 320GB hard drive can be purchased today for $298. For $398 you can get a Dell Inspiron i15RV1333BLK, also with a 15.6” screen, with 6 gig of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a built-in webcam.

An Apple MacBook Air, on the other hand, with only an 11” screen, 4GB of memory, and just 128GB of secondary storage costs $999 – $1,199 if you want a 256GB hard-drive equivalent. For a 13” screen, you must pay $100 more ($1,099 and 1299.00 respectively). This is primarily because Apple is, by far, the premium high-priced computer brand. Apple is comparable BMW or Mercedes-Benz while HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo and the rest are more like Ford or Chevy.

There is nothing, however, an Apple computer does that the rest cannot do – other than cost more and maybe look a little fancier. Like Brooks Brothers with shirts, Apple charges as much for its prestige label as for the actual product. You must pay more for an Apple than for almost any other computer brand. That is why Apple’s market share is small (currently about 13%) and (is again) shrinking.

This plan also teaches our students to stay with yesterday’s technology rather than use newer, better, and less expensive alternatives now readily available. Traditional desktop and laptop computers are just so very 20th Century! Their sales are falling due to a proliferation of increasingly powerful low cost tablet computers able to do everything that traditional desktops and laptops do.

Apple’s own iPad Air tablet sells for about half the price of a MacBook Air.  Other vendors sell equivalent tablets for less (and more capable models at comparable prices). Tablet vendors, including Microsoft, have recently been slashing prices in response to an increasingly competitive, price-sensitive market. Even quite cheap tablets today provide the Wi-Fi access, web browser, programmability, and other essential capabilities required for educational use of computers in the schools.

The plan also teaches our students to go out and buy another one, even if you already have one – especially if you can pay for it with somebody else’s money. Many, perhaps most, teenagers in Duxbury already have laptops or tablets. Why should Duxbury’s taxpayers buy them another one?

Why not limit taxpayer subsidized computers to students whose families really cannot afford to buy them one? Why should hard-pressed taxpayers be required to buy additional computers for students who already have them? Does this really make sense? What sort of example is this? Do you think?