Editorial: A great effort to close technology gap
The Stewartville Public School District is engaged in an experiment that should produce some interesting results.
In the 2009-10 school year, one section of fourth-graders and one section of fifth-graders at Central Intermediate School were issued netbook computers. This year, that number was tripled, meaning that half the kids in the school have netbooks in their desks. And next year, it's possible this "test run" will be expanded to include all students in grades four, five, six and nine.
This isn't a cheap experiment. Netbooks are on the low end of the computer price range, but at $300 each, Stewartville could easily invest $150,000 in hardware for four grades. And right now there's no scientific proof that giving students their own computers — and making those computers an integral part of classroom instruction — will improve those all-important standardized test scores. That might end up being the case, but the jury's still out.
We suspect that officials in quite a few other school districts will have more than a passing interest in Stewartville's MCA scores during the next year or two. We'll be curious, too, but regardless of how those numbers turn out, we're convinced the district is following the right path, because it is taking aggressive action to close what we'll call the "technology gap."
Not every student has a computer in their home, which puts them at a tremendous educational disadvantage that could ultimately limit their opportunities in our increasingly technology-based work force. Eldon Anderson, the principal at Central Intermediate, says the netbook program should help prevent that from happening.
"We're trying to look out into the future, to prepare our students for the workplace of the future," he said. "The farther ahead on technology that we can be, and the more technologically sophisticated that our children can be, the more advantage they will have."
Of course, having access to a netbook and the Internet during school hours is one thing, but what happens at 7 p.m. when a fifth-grader needs to do research for a science project? At least one in five Minnesota households has no access to the Internet.
Anderson acknowledges that this is a problem. "That's going to be one of the challenges going out into the future," he said. "Some of our rural parents are saying, 'There's nobody that even comes out here'" with Internet service.
The school district can't afford to purchase wireless data plans for every netbook it hands out, but Anderson said it is doing what it can to level the playing field. "Our technology director worked with the city of Stewartville, and we've expanded our school wireless coverage to the public library, creating a wireless hotspot there," he said. "And at the Southern Hills trailer court, on the north side of town, we're going to create a wireless hotspot. We're even considering the idea of keeping the school computer lab open for a set period of time after school."
These are solid ideas. Granted, merely having access to the Internet doesn't make kids any smarter, but used properly — with content filters and some parental supervision — the web is an invaluable learning tool. Rochester elementary school students, for example, have access to spellingcity.com and studyisland.com, two sites that offer fun, challenging spelling lessons and MCA-style lessons in math and reading. But without home access to the Internet, these tools serve little purpose.
We can only hope that in the very near future, teachers across the state will be able to make online assignments without worrying that a half-dozen of their students will have to do their homework in the school's computer lab during recess or after school.
And we'll go one step further: Within the next five or 10 years, we hope public school teachers are spending some time online during the evening, answering questions from students who are doing their homework.
After all, even blazing-fast access to the Internet is no substitute for an explanation from a good teacher.