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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

West Central Spends Half Million on Macs™ for HS

Let's start a Mac-PC flame war....

With the Republican Legislature hammering education to balance our mismanaged state budget, you'd think every school would be cutting expenses and praying for rain. Not West Central in Hartford. They're spending half a million dollars to buy 430 Macbooks to equip every high school student with a laptop.

I agree with West Central Principal Mark Hofer that issuing each student a laptop is better than scheduling and hauling computer carts around between classrooms. My main question: are Macs really worth it? These Apple machines cost over a thousand dollars apiece, more than twice the price of PC laptops. In perhaps some injudicious editing, KELO's Katie Janssen justifies the cost by pulling this quote:

"With MacBooks, they have* iMovie, iDVD, Garage Band,” Hofer said. “Some classes are project-based, so they can use all those tools to show their knowledge in an innovative way."

That rustling sound is the bushy eyebrows of parents and taxpayers elevating at the mention of Garage Band as a curriculum tool.

I dig digital media and the whole idea of making students producers, not just consumers, of online media. But in the current budget situation, are Macs really necessary? Remember, for the price of one Mac, you can buy three or four netbooks. And there's a strong argument to be made that for most classroom activities, even a piddly little netbook is all the computer students need.

If, of course, you think students need computers in the classroom in the first place....

*Bonus Grammar Quibble! Principal Hofer's quote exemplifies a grammar problem I've seen creeping into writing and speech recently. "With Macbooks, they have..."—why open with that prepositional phrase? Why not just say, "Macbooks have..."? The prepositional phrase and subsequent pronoun create a superfluous delay in conveying meaning. I hear similar constructions with by ("By studying grammar, it helps you...") and occasionally in (usually in citations in high school speeches: "In this article, it states that..."). Drop the preposition, the comma, and the pronoun—tighten those sentences!


  1. Our very small school (Rutland) has laptops for the entire high school this year but somehow it didn't make the news... As for Mac's, it is what we use and they are awesome! The speed is great and virus threats are not a big issue.

  2. What a giant waste of money on two levels. First, computers IN the classroom have NEVER been linked to improved outcomes. Secondly, the Macintosh operating system is almost never used. Why would you choose to teach someone how to use an obscure technology and not teach them what is actually in use! That would be like trying to teach someone Quaternion notation rather than Vector notation!

    They're doing these students a disservice.

  3. Mac OS X is hardly "obscure". Besides, unless you're trying to teach somebody how to be a system administrator (well beyond the scope of any high school course I've ever heard of), the choice of operating system isn't critical. Support for the most common software is broadly the same, and it's not like OS X is so different from everything else that learning OS X makes it impossible to use anything else ever again in the future.

  4. Thanks for the reminder about being concise. "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell" (Strunk and White,The Elements of Style).

  5. Mike-

    Here is the current operating system break down:


    With regards to choice of operating system, I disagree. Perhaps for you, technology is straight forward. For many it is not. I see no reason to teach students how to use something they most likely will not use in the future.

  6. You may pay less up-front for cheap cheap Windows laptops, but I doubt for the same power the savings is really 4 to 1, especially after you add in the total cost of ownership.

    Central HS in Rapid City went all-windows a couple of years ago in response to a member of the school board pushing the idea that PCs were cheaper. What they have a terrible Windows-based server system that they have real trouble maintaining. I realize Windows networks CAN run well and be run securely, but it can't be done on the cheap. (Especially you can't scrimp on your IT talent. OS X isn't cheap to keep safe and running either, but remember, it's UNIX so it's much less vulnerable. Yeah, I know Win 7 is better.

    From the application standpoint, OS doesn't matter any more - students are using google docs and stuff like that now which are web-based -- so their docs are always with them as long as they have a web connction - so something that doesn't need to be rebooted every day or two is a much better buy IMHO.

    My home computer network is a LOT less hassle to administer since I abandoned PCs four years ago. I'm not looking back -- it's worth the money to me.

  7. First off, I might agree that spending that much money on substantially more expensive laptops was a colossal waste of money--but as cp pointed out, you really really have to be aware that just the raw cost of the machines and OS isn't the only thing to consider, so I would have to see a TCO analysis to be sure.

    That being said, I would strongly disagree that teaching students something they'll possibly never use in the future is doing them a disservice. I've spent plenty of time in school learning things that I probably won't use anytime soon. Does that make it a disservice to me? Of course not. There's no shame in teaching our students different ways of doing or looking at the same thing.

    Speaking further about "obscure" operating systems, my (Madison's) elementary schools used to have machines with good old Mac OS Classic, which is now practically (not completely) extinct. Did my school do me a disservice by teaching me something I'll probably never use again? I doubt it. On my own machines I use mostly Linux, which has an even lower usage share than Mac OS. Is Linux an "obscure technology" that nobody ever uses? Not even close. Matter of fact, learning how to use Linux was probably one of the best things I ever did for myself.

    Finally, like cp said, at the application level it really doesn't matter. Even if you aren't using Web-based apps, the way you use your computer isn't really that different across different operating systems. A web browser is a web browser, a word processor is a word processor, and so on.


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