May 20, 1998

Texas Weighs Value of Laptops vs. Textbooks

It is a Texas-sized idea: Take the Lone Star State's billion-dollar-plus textbook budget and use it to buy laptop computers for students instead of textbooks.

The proposal is a pet idea of the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Jack Christie, who last week pressed his case by inviting legislators in the Capitol in Austin to a kind of show-and-tell session where hardware and software makers demonstrated what they consider the benefits of computer learning.

It was, at times, a colorful session. To answer concerns that laptops might not be child-proof, for example, the co-founder of one company selling laptop packages to schools poured a glass of water over a laptop and told lawmakers that it could withstand the weight of a 250 pound person.

Durable? Perhaps.

A state official says computers will level the playing field.

But can laptops teach better than books?

That is the central question being asked by the proposal's critics, who argue that computer screens are no replacement for the printed page.

"Nobody wants to read long passages of text on a laptop computer," said Gary Chapman, who, as director of The 21st Century Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, examines technology and public policy issues.

If Christie has his way, within three years Texas will begin using the bulk of its textbook budget to buy laptops for the 3.9 million school children in the state. The proposal is being watched closely around the country, in part because Texas, with $1.8 billion to spend over the next six years on school books, exercises mighty influence in the textbook market.

Christie, who says he can even envision a time when students in English class will be reading their Shakespeare from a screen, insists there are rich educational benefits to reap from laptops or similar gadgets.

For one thing, he says, textbooks are quickly out-of-date. "A year-and-a-half ago, we were replacing social studies textbooks that had the Berlin Wall still up, Russia as one country and Ronald Reagan finishing his second term," Christie, an elected official and chiropractor by profession, said in a telephone interview. He said that material conveyed electronically, on the other hand, can easily overcome this time-lag.

Christie also sees the proposal as a way of making sure that Texas does not develop a generation of technology haves and have-nots. By assuring that all students have laptops capable of reaching the Internet and other online resources, he said, "The poor child has an equal knowledge base as the child in the lah-de-dah high school."

Finally, Christie argues that laptops are the way to reach students who have been raised on flashing monitors. "This is the Nintendo generation," he said, arguing that students are bored when they read about geometry from a textbook, but become motivated when they see three-dimensional software with "living triangles."

It is an argument that does not sit well with Chapman.

He counters that technological razzle-dazzle is exactly what children already mesmerized by the gaudiness of mass culture do not need. Chapman says that much of the educational software he has seen is superficial and more oriented to "edu-tainment" than genuine learning that demands rigor and concentration. "We understand that learning is difficult," he said. "It requires discipline. If we say we are going to make learning that's 'fun' and resembles a video game, we've kind of given up."

Chapman is by no means a techno-phobe. The former executive director of the organization Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, he believes that computers in the classroom are a fine adjunct to good teaching. But he fears the expense and technical demands of portable computers will mean that laptops will become a school's "predominant resource," possibly displacing other things of value, such as field trips. Furthermore, Chapman said, he is worried that much of the enthusiasm for the laptop effort comes from people desperate to find an easy cure for what ails America's education system and who, therefore, easily buy the marketing campaigns of computer-related companies.

But, Chapman said: "The reasons we have problems in K-12 schools have nothing to do with access to information. They have to do with student home lives, with student apathy, with student pre-occupation with popular culture and consumerism."

Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt., which recently launched the nation's first master's degree program in teaching with Internet technologies, said computers can be effective teaching tools in some disciplines, ineffective in others. Word processing programs, for example, may be useful to help children focus on writing rather than the mechanics of revision. But in natural sciences and math, LeBlanc said, he has not seen much software of great educational value. "Books simply do some things better," he said.

One point LeBlanc emphasizes is that technology in the classroom is fraught with hidden costs, like teacher training and curriculum re-vamping. That is to say nothing of other expenses: Textbook publishers who make their living providing schoolbooks are not going to give away the material free online or in CD-ROMS, for example.


Internet links of interest to readers of the Education column

Nonetheless, Christie believes that a combination of factors -- declining hardware costs; decreased expenses for publishers who can forgo paying for such things as warehousing and paper when they make material available electronically; the possibility that parents will chip in a monthly "leasing fee" of perhaps $10 -- could make the laptop project do-able.

Christie also dismisses fears about corporate interests driving laptop enthusiasm, and says Texas's purchasing power will ensure the state receives its money's worth from hardware and software companies.

Christie was asked how he would convince skeptical parents to accept his proposal. He said he would take them to a school and usher them into history classes where students use CD-ROMs. "They not only read about the landing on the moon, but see it," he said. "These kids are going to be some of the luckiest kids of any generation in the classroom."

The EDUCATION column is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

Pamela Mendels at welcomes your comments and suggestions.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company