South Australian educators copped a bucketing yesterday from the Federal Opposition for asking parents to pay for notebook computers paid for by the taxpayer under the Federal Government's Digital Education Revolution.
Pressuring parents to pay for computers they already paid for through taxes seems unfair at first whiff. It's like saying: "You can read the book in the school library but hand over your folks' credit card if you want to take it home".
And it comes in the middle of the worst recession in living memory, on the back of rising school fees, three consecutive leaps in interest rates (with another in the wind) and increasing worries about job security.
It looks like a shake down by greedy educators. No wonder the Federal Opposition thought it was on a winner.
But as the State Government's department of education and children's services makes clear, schools seeking to impose the charge are well within their rights.
"Whether students are allowed to take laptops home is at the discretion of the individual school," the Government website says in its FAQ. "This decision will need to be made within the requirements of their education jurisdiction."
Schools have the choice to buy notebooks, thin clients or desktop PCs. The Rudd Government plan is to give every Year 9-12 student their own machine by the end of next year.
The two schools revealed by Federal Opposition shadow education minister Chris Pyne are supplying an Apple Macbook to each student. If families choose to pay the $1250 to $1460 asked by the schools, students can take the machines home or wherever they please. But even if they don't pay, they will still have dedicated use of their own PC - they just have to leave it at school.
There's some sense to this arrangement. The taxpayer is handing over more than $2.2 billion over six years until 2013 for new machines and information infrastructure and that's a recurring cost for the next cohort. To put that into perspective, the Snowy River Scheme cost $800 million in 1974 or about $5.3 billion today.
Clearly, some enterprising resellers have seen a way to service this multi-billion-dollar market.
But taxpayers, and that includes parents, need to know their investment is protected.
And many parents may choose not to force their children to ferry a notebook around for reasons other than its price.
1. Most homes already have computers - probably better ones than the base specced education machines offered - and if the electronic coursework is supplied online, the student can access the material anywhere. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found last month that in the past 10 years, household internet access quadrupled to 72 percent while 78 percent had a PC up from 44 percent.
The 2009 Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities survey found most of Australia's 2.7 million children aged five to 14 already used the internet - mostly at home (73 percent versus 69 percent at school).
2. Laptops are prone to failure - In a survey of 30,000 laptops, US warranty company Squaretrade found about a third die in the first three years. And netbooks such as those favoured by the NSW Government are 20 percent more prone to failure than notebooks.
Repairers would probably find these figures much higher among education customers. WA's oldest portables reseller principal, Neil Hancock, told me an interesting story last year about how a daily bag fight in a school resulted in very high failure rate among notebooks. The Portacom reseller said a private investigator found that students left the machines in their bags during the fights, I presume for greater ballast when they whacked their opponents.
3. Laptops are prone to loss and theft - what is euphemistically known in the retail trade as "shrinkage". Doubtless eBay will provide a channel for many of these education machines handed out so freely to find their way onto the grey market. And then guess who picks up the tab for replacements? The taxpayer or school community. Either way, parents pay.
4. Laptops are heavy - they are an extra burden in students' backpacks at a time in their lives when their bones are still growing. Essential to any decision to add a laptop to the mix is an appropriate harness.
Are laptops just too 'old school'?
Laptop education policies were pushed aggressively by vendors in the '90s at a time when IT was permeating schools and interactive coursework was becoming more intensive, multimedia and big files more common. Back then, broadband was a 56Kbps modem and it made sense to store all materials on an individual machine's hard drive that was ferried between home and school.
And there was a sense of elitism about it, private schools trading heavily on their laptop policies to boost enrolments even as the educational benefits were hotly debated.
But today, a 4GB thumb drive is $15 at an Australia Post shop, half of Australians have access to broadband speeds of 1.5Mbps and data is moving increasingly into the cloud. Virtualisation also means that thumb drives can hold the student's operating environment wherever they have to be.
Lose the thumb drive? An image stored on a school server is downloaded in minutes to a thumb drive likely twice the size of the old one and the student is back in class a few minutes later. This approach also guarantees better backup policies; no more "the virus ate my homework, Miss".
And there is less need for a device to follow the user because so long as they can access the net and an image stored online they can, at least in theory, access their data anywhere; even on their iPhone, in a pinch.
Look at Facebook, Google Apps or MySpace: does it matter that the user doesn't have that data on their local PC? No. It's a benefit that the data is stored online where they and their friends can access it anywhere from any device.
The inexorable trend to virtualisation and the cloud in the enterprise makes pushing physical machines on students look downright archaic.
Of course there are exceptions to this utopian view and especially for those in the country or at the edges of suburbia a portable device such as a dedicated laptop makes a lot of sense. And in this case it seems the two schools Pyne revealed are on the southern edge of the Adelaide metro area, about 90 minutes from Rundle Mall.
But the question those families who can't afford or don't want to pay the impost should ask the schools is whether homework alternatives will be provided? For instance, will there be paper and pen equivalents of any interactive coursework?
For those parents with computers already at home, will they have access to virtual machines or education material in the cloud?
Failure to do so could open the schools up to claims by parents that they are discriminating against their children. These are state schools with a requirement to educate all comers.
Parents may also like to investigate the 50 percent tax rebate offered by the Federal Government for laptops bought for education reasons. It's important to note that home schoolers have no choice to buy a laptop from their "school": the Digital Education Revolution expressly excludes them.
So much for equity and no child left behind.
And all parents should ask why a Government so obsessed with putting shiny computers in students' hands was so stingy as to can the salary sacrifice arrangements that many parents had used for years to cater for their families' education and work needs?
There's nothing in the education manifesto that guarantees a student can take home their machine but schools and governments should provide alternatives to cater to all students.