Put free laptop policy to the test
Now that the bill is in—$59 million—for delivery of the People’s Partnership campaign pledge to provide laptops to Form One pupils, a start should at least be made in evaluating the benefits.
Education Minister Tim Gopeesingh said this week 21,500 machines are to be distributed for the start of the school term.
Too little is known, however, about the impact on the many more thousands of children who, since 2010, have each received a laptop. In countries which are serious about pedagogy, these kinds of initiatives are usually accompanied by tracking programmes to determine the effects. Surveys are designed and sampling done to see if the pupils are attaining stated goals and, just as importantly, if any unintended consequences are being manifested.
It is thus revealing that Caricom neighbour St Lucia has been sufficiently impressed with the Trinidad and Tobago programme to piggyback on the wholesale laptop shopping, even though the Education Ministry here cannot truthfully lay claim to any improvements in educational scores arising from this initiative. But, for Caribbean politicians, the boast of providing such 21st century devices to children is enough to accomplish their main goal—winning votes.
One year from now, however, the first set of laptop recipients will be getting the results of their CSEC examinations. This may allow some crude evaluation of the effects of using these free laptops. Such an analysis must necessarily be crude, because the CSEC bears no direct relationship to laptop use. However, the Government’s rationale for this initiative was that by facilitating access to information, pupils’ overall learning would be improved. This may indeed be so but, more importantly, computers and the Internet, properly utilised, allow pupils to engage in more self-teaching, by methods such as utilising the vast storehouse of video tutorials available on YouTube and other websites.
On the other hand, Minister Gopeesingh noted that some laptops have, predictably, been abused for playing games and sourcing pornography. This is the downside of using the Internet for pedagogy—rather than being an educational tool, the computer becomes a key distraction, taking up not only time, but also possibly inhibiting key cognitive skills for learning, such as a long attention span. For this reason, the laptop programme should not have been initiated until teachers had been trained to guide pupils in responsible and effective usage. But computer-related teacher training has also been lacking in both quantity and quality.
These defects, while not reparable, can at least be mitigated. Well before 2014—the final year of the Partnership commitment—and well before spending more millions, accredited expert assessment should be undertaken of the achievements and prospects for taking T&T schooling into the digital age.