Nan Austin

On Campus: Let’s talk techie – yes, students need computers

Fourth-graders, from left, Quentin Lipscomb, Connor Keehner, Kayla Richwine and Jazmine Savorn write computer code.
Fourth-graders, from left, Quentin Lipscomb, Connor Keehner, Kayla Richwine and Jazmine Savorn write computer code. Sacramento Bee file

Computer Science Week just wound up, but the whole month has felt tech-centric.

I’ve covered kids learning computer coding, talked to teens competing in cybersecurity and watched school board members try out Google apps. I’ve also scanned agenda after agenda discussing Internet connection upgrades, administrative software and class sets of laptops.

There is a tech-tonic shift happening, pardon the pun, from the inkwell world where classrooms got their start. Encyclopedias to Googling. Wide-ruled binder paper to spreadsheets. Pencils to styluses.

More than the classic No. 2s have their futures on the line here. Whole industries have sprung up to help the massive education market spend its billions in new and exciting ways. A host of less-than-glamorous needs also will cost a pretty penny.

With help from various programs, taxpayers may not feel the pain directly, but they will be footing the bill.

Computers are only the tip of the technology cost iceberg. Firewalls that protect schools and kids from the bad elements of the Internet without barring its better half do not come cheap. Aligning grading software, test results analysis, attendance and other school systems – usually all made by different companies – takes specialized programs.

Training teachers to make the most of technology takes another investment. Even the cost of making older school buildings capable of hosting high-speed wireless service is daunting.

At Ceres Unified, board members trying out Google apps were told to “45” their screens when not looking at them, not turn the devices off. The district’s broadband service is so limited that an entire classroom logging on at the same time slows computer work districtwide.

A $4 million upgrade is in the works, 90 percent underwritten by the federal e-rate program, Ceres Superintendent Scott Siegel said. Turlock Unified also is upgrading this year, 80 percent underwritten by Uncle Sam. The e-rate difference reflects the numbers of poor students the district serves.

The Ceres district plans to buy laptops to check out to all but its youngest students next year. Manteca Unified will roll out an all-digital district in the spring. Salida has started the shift to online. Davis High is piloting student laptops in Modesto City Schools.

Digital devices for students are becoming commonplace, pushed along by California’s decision to use online, computer-adapted testing.

But it would have happened anyway.

Proponents of computers in the classroom point to better engagement of students – kids like using computers. Besides putting this expensive and difficult shift on the same level as scented felt pens, this argument ignores the underlying reasons that make it matter.

First, adults all use them, which makes them cool to kids. But follow that reasoning out a bit. Computers are ubiquitous in business, which means most bosses expect job applicants to have basic computer skills. Colleges, beginning with the application process, expect students to go online to communicate, do research and hand in work in electronic form.

Second, most kids are inherently social creatures. This often annoying trait can be put to good use in web-based applications. The urge to chat and text, once focused on a group assignment, becomes collaboration and teamwork.

Third, it makes them think, not just absorb. Remember sitting through a history lecture in the afternoon, with the sun beckoning outside and a big lunch taking its toll on attentiveness? Now envision having a project directly in front of you and taking commands from the fingertips. Which one would be more productive for any of us?

Add in the extras: a textbook industry being overtaken by better, cheaper online alternatives, and the world of museums, libraries and research centers opening up to free, anytime digital visits.

The digital world, now so whiz-bang, is the printing press of this era. It opens the world of information to everyone and changes what we need to learn to be valued in the workforce. Today. high-tech companies are scouring the world to find young adults to fill jobs with six-figure salaries and all the perks. Our kids need to have those choices.

That said, in a perfect world, every classroom also would have paints and clay, erector sets, musical instruments and stacks of richly illustrated paper books. Computers are no substitute for messy, hands-on exploration.

But they do bring essential skills and amazing opportunities, and need to have a place on the desk.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.