With the education revolution a key part of the Rudd government’s election platform, the recent embarrassing “argy-bargy” with the States (especially NSW) over implementation costs of the government’s $1.2 billion promise to put computers on the desks of all students in Years 9 to 12 was seized by the Opposition and used as a political bludgeon. When the States meekly fell into line before the CoAG meeting last week, the political hoo-ha died away but the issue didn’t.

In fact the issue has been around for more than a decade, during which time plans offering big bucks to put computers in front of kids, and therefore launch them into the 21st century, have been used time and again as a neat electoral ploy.

But these plans hardly ever include money to support the computers, or to acquire and operate ancillary devices.

Crikey has visited a private school where computers are used by every student. The school employs ten IT staff and had just acquired more than $50,000 of data storage equipment, an essential item to ensure students’ work is backed up. Another school we recently encountered found that everyday PCs simply cannot withstand the punishment dealt out by teenage boys, who have been known to break off DVD-ROM trays by accident. Government PC-buying programs do not include explicit mechanisms to deal with that kind of maintenance.

Those with hands-on expertise therefore say that schemes that only provide money for the acquisition of hardware money are inadequate unless additional money is spent on the peripheral costs of implementing the program and then operating the computers. Those costs run at around $3 or $4 for every dollar spent on computers for kids.

Bob Lipscombe, Deputy President of the NSW Teacher’s Federation is scathing about the Federal government’s failure to consult with teachers about the best way to get access to computers for senior students.

“There is an assumption by governments at all levels that all that really needs to happen to roll out the hardware and that somehow magically with very little regard to professional development these computers will make a wonderful difference to schools outcomes,” says Lipscombe.

If they’d been asked, the NSW Teacher’s Federation would have been more than happy to tell the government that the plan needed to include the cost of upgrading electricity supplies to schools, training the teachers on incorporating computers into the curriculum as well as the ongoing issue of technical support.

In stage one of the new federal program, high schools in NSW will receive on average between 200 and 300 computers, with the largest schools getting around 400 computers but there is no provision for non-teaching staff member to be providing support to those machines.

“What other organisation with hundreds of computers would not have onsite tech support?” asks Lipscombe.

The reality is that such support has usually been supplied by enthusiastic teachers, who provide tech support and also develop ways to bring computers into the curriculum.

This time, however, teachers may not be willing to spend their own time to make computers work.

“If the commitment is not made to properly support and resource the rollout in terms of infrastructure, professional development and technical support then teachers will look seriously at not supporting the roll out,” says Lipscombe.

“The Teacher’s Federation is not prepared to stand by and watch the already significant workload of its members added to by poorly thought out programs.”

It’s not just Years 9 to 12 where these issues could become prominent.

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a US based organisation offering a cheap laptop for children in disadvantaged communities, has a vigorous local chapter which says the federal government is already interested in its device.

“There is certainly a lot of interest from Canberra in this project,” says OLPC Australia’s Jeff Waugh.

“OLPC Australia and Boston see disadvantaged communities as the natural focus, but there is an enormous amount we can do beyond that. We see an incredible opportunity for children all around Australia in primary school and it is good for older kids to create content and software for people in their community.”

The Parliament House community will also, one suspects, need to wise up to the support costs involved before these scenarios come to pass.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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