Access to computers

President Obama recently unveiled a plan to have broadband Internet access in every school across the United States by 2018. There’s only one huge problem with that plan; according to the US government’s own research, as of 2006, there was only one computer for every four students, and many of those computers are old. Outfitting the rest of the students in the United States with a computer, and upgrading the existing ones to be useful, will come with a hefty price tag.

Include with the plan (linked above) is this statement: 

In addition to connecting America’s students, ConnectED harnesses the ingenuity of the American private sector get new technologies into students’ hands and support digital learning content.

I read this as, "We will use public money to buy computers for students via private companies" and very likely, those private companies will make enormous profits, given the size of the US education market.

Here’s a more creative solution: develop open-source hardware for schools, like the Raspberry Pi. Not only will the costs be lower in the long run (since the US government can then mass-produce the hardware for schools at cost), it will create jobs within the United States, and allow for innovation in the field through end-user adaptation.

There are a couple of arguments against this idea.

First, one thing that brings down the price of computers is production in mass scale. To this I say, the number of students in the US school system is more than sufficient to allow economy of scale to bring down prices to reasonable levels.

The second argument is that competition between different manufacturers of computers reduces prices, which to some extend is true. However, technology companies also artificially increase their profits in a variety of ways, including delaying new features for their computers to force turn-over of their devices when they introduce these features, and continuing to build their hardware for planned obselescence rather durability and life-span.

While I think that there are tremendous benefits to technology in schools, I also think that schools should use public money wisely. The United States certainly has the technical capability of developing high-quality, durable, open-source hardware. The question is, why aren’t they using it?

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