Today’s tech, tomorrow’s auction fodder

What is the half-life of technology?

Bainbridge Islanders might think of it as

the amount of time that passes between the

introduction of some new whiz-bang consumer device –

a computer, a television, a Nordic-Trac – and when it shows

up in quantity for $10 each at the Rotary Auction.

It’s not long.

So we should have some sympathy for Bainbridge Island School District officials, as they try to chart an effective strategy for introducing and maintaining technology in our public school classrooms. With taxpayer dollars at stake, and the evolution of information-age devices sizzling along at blinding speed, there is the eternal quandary of just what to buy and when – with the certainty that what’s cutting-edge today will be quaint and pretty much useless the day after tomorrow.

We dare say it is that concern – and perhaps the connotations of extravagance sure to bloom in some minds – that is at the root of any recent discomfort with the word “laptop” as it’s been used during planning for the district’s upcoming technology levy. In presentations and documents, officials have discussed the desireability of individual computer access at various grade levels, and the term “laptop” has been tossed around with decreasing precision.

What kind of laptops would the district buy? And for that matter, why can’t parents buy them for their kids?

We might more usefully ask: What does ‘laptop’ really mean?

We posed the question to Randy Orwin, technology guru for the district, who argues that the issue is really about how and when to commit to “one to one” computer network/application access for students, whatever form that might take. Rather than envisioning an iBook or a Dell Inspiron in every backpack, Orwin suggests that by the time the district actually gets around to buying anything (perhaps two or three years after any levy is approved), the industry may well have rolled out an intermediate device – a hybrid, somewhere between a PDA and a full-blown portable computer – targeted specifically at the student market. Such a device might more accurately be thought of as an “interface,” allowing specific activities in the classroom setting but not necessarily the full “digital lifestyle” that comes with today’s consumer laptops.

Before any direction is chosen, he notes, the district must address a number of related issues, including computer support for a school full of peripatetic machines and – most important, in his estimation – adequate training for teachers and staff. If instructors cannot understand the technology or properly harness it for classroom ends, the whole exercise fails.

(Orwin does acknowledge one other hope common in his circles: that miniaturization and other improvements will make such devices more durable, and thus likely to withstand the [ab]use of young hands. Now there’s a vision for you.)

With the new year, the school board will resume its planning for the technology levy, and we may or may not continue to hear “laptop” in casual use.

We suppose at some point, the interface may be simplified further still: a cord plugged from the network straight into the student’s head. Until that day comes, our little metaphors will have to suffice.

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