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Monday with the Editor: Tablet PC project for schools ahead of its time?

Hallo everyone

The newspapers last week had quite a lot of news on young people. There was talk on the new tablet PCs which were being tried out in a pilot project by students at Crescent Girls' School. A reader wrote in to the Forum Page of The Straits Times1 (9 Aug 2004) to complain about expensive technology being "adopted more for the 'cool factor' than any real or substantial benefits".

Mr Sng said though his regular textbooks "were far cheaper than these tablet PCs, they were still a burden to my parents who had to put three children through school. I can't imagine if they had had to buy three tablet PCs".

In response, Crescent Girls' School Principal Mrs Lee Bee Yann2 replied that "the support expressed by the parents was overwhelming: 95 per cent signed up for the trial and bought the tablet PCs".

Mrs Lee added that "we have also established a loan scheme for needy students and those whose parents are unsure of making a purchase".

I do not know the makeup of the student population at Crescent Girls'. Are most of their students from well-to-do families? Was it a case of keeping up with the Joneses when some of these parents agreed to buy the PC tablets for their children? And which needy parents would dare raise their hands for a loan unit?

Also, did any parents have to borrow money from relatives to buy the PC tablet so that their children would not be looked down on? Personally, I agree with Mr Sng that such delicate instruments costing thousands of dollars "place a large financial burden on students and their families".

Even with both parents working, it is hard enough to support a family with school-going children, making sure they get enough pocket money for school, let alone fork out hundreds of dollars every month for the tablet PC.

And it's only a pilot project. When the whole thing has done its run and the people behind the project find tablet PCs for prepubescent students aren't going to work out, the ones bearing the brunt of this painful experience will be the parents, not those running the project. These parents will be stuck with technology that becomes obsolete within the space of one or two years. The only thing they can say gladly on hindsight is that their children had the chance to tinker with these gadgets in school, albeit at their expense. 

Even if the project were to succeed, there would be more problems in its path. These will come when tablet PCs are introduced to the students in the normal academic and normal technical streams. Many of these students can't even take care of themselves - that's, perhaps, why they come into these streams. How are they to be expected to take good care of the delicate tablet PC?

Moreover, many students, particularly in the normal technical stream, come from broken homes. How are they going to come out with money to buy these things?

Sure, the government has deep pockets. It can afford to come up with the S$1.5 billion (S$3000 per tablet PC x 500,000 students) needed to put a tablet PC in the hands of every student in Singapore. But, should we continue to have this mindset of expecting the government to solve every foreseeable problem for us?

I think the tablet PC project is ahead of its time. When tablet PCs cost under S$500 - which may be sooner than we expect - the tablet PC may well become an ubiquitous training tool of every student in our schools.

Perhaps, the people behind the tablet PC project in our schools have already factored this in and are projecting full rollout of tablet PCs in a few years' time when tablet PCs become affordable to the masses. If that's the case, I take my hat off to them!

Have a good week!

1 Technology for its own sake - Straits Times Forum Page 9 Aug 2004

2 Tablet PCs in schools offer wide range of benefits - Straits Times Forum Page 16 Aug 2004

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16 August 2004