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Back to class, with laptops in hand

They'll become common -- and taxpayers will pay: educator

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Every child in Manitoba schools will have a laptop or tablet on his or her desk within the next few years, veteran school superintendent Brian O'Leary predicts -- but it has to be a level playing field with good equipment for everyone.

And the public school system has to provide those devices for kids, he said.

"It's the way of the future. The question is the path we follow to get there," said O'Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division. "In the next few years, every kid will have a laptop in his hands."

Provincial Education Department officials are ready to talk with the public-school educators about the role of electronic devices in classrooms, including funding, deputy education minister Gerald Farthing said Wednesday, but everyone first needs to be clear on how much laptops help students learn.

"We need to take a close look at that. How can we show or know that that contributes to learning?" he said.

O'Leary lauded Louis Riel School Division for a fledgling program that now requires every student in grades 9 and 10 at Dakota Collegiate to have a laptop. But, he cautioned, "The equity issue has to be addressed."

It's not acceptable if "someone's got a clunker of a computer and someone's got a MacBook Pro," he said.

Relying on outside donors won't cut it system-wide, nor can the public school system expect lower-income parents to buy laptops or tablets, even though some are $200, and the price continues to drop, O'Leary said.

"This is a real concern," Farthing said. "Equity has to do with access to resources. People talk about the digital divide -- we don't want to contribute to that, we want to narrow that divide," the deputy minister said.

O'Leary said every jurisdiction in North America that's experimenting with making laptops mandatory in class has provided them to students.

"The state of Maine provides a laptop to every Grade 7 student," and Alberta has a pilot project in 15 of its schools, O'Leary said.

"There are some budget tradeoffs you can make," he said.

If a school is spending $100,000 retrofitting old computers or $80 for each copy of a new textbook, or putting money into a school computer room, that's money that could buy individual electronic devices, he said.

O'Leary said iPads could offer more options than laptops, and though that would make it difficult for schools to block access to some websites as divisions do now on tabletop school computers, "Are we better to block, or to educate kids about the proper usage?" he asked.

Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson said he's heard about problems at Dakota, about technical headaches from using a variety of devices in one classroom. "The teacher ends up being the troubleshooter," he said.

Theoretically, it's a good idea for learning, said Olson, but it depends on how far a division goes in directing whether laptops will be used at all times, or if other methods, including pens and paper, could also be used.

"The teacher is the professional in the school. The teacher should exercise autonomy to decide what the best tool is to use and when," he said.

Said Farthing: "I agree with Paul on that. Teachers obviously need to be part of that. The teacher is the person on site."

Financially and socially, Olson said, "They make me a little anxious. Some families will find it onerous. There's always been the kid who has a box with 64 crayons and the kid who has a box with eight crayons -- this takes it to a whole different level."

Tory education critic Cameron Friesen said technology has an important role in learning, but it's not appropriate to expect parents to pay for something that expensive and then make it mandatory. "If we're embracing technology in the classroom, we've got to provide it," Friesen said.

The Social Planning Council of Winnipeg opposes any plan that forces parents to undergo a means test or declare themselves unable to afford something for their kids, said policy analyst Marianne Cerilli.

Already, said Cerilli, schools are moving to electronic assignments, communicating with parents by email, and online newsletters, all of which assume a family has a home computer.

Schools must be careful about the financial and social pressures imposed on families for expensive equipment, University of Manitoba family economics Prof. Karen Duncan said.

If one family can afford a state-of-the-art model, and a classmate's family needs to rely on a donated, older model, "There's certainly potential for a social stigma among students," Duncan said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2012 A4

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