Balneus

Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Rudd’s flawed laptop proposals

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-10-23


Rudd’s plan to provide funding for student computing resources is welcome, but some of the details seem flawed.  This post will not only point out some of the flaws, but how the weaknesses can be overcome.

Outline of flaws

  1. I’ve seen no mention of funding for tertiary students, who arguably have a greater need than secondary or primary students.
     
  2. A direct and timely rebate administered through educational institutions would be better than a tax rebate.
     
  3. Funding should not be available for software.
     
  4. Funding for internet connections should be minimal.

The need of tertiary students

Tertiary students, especially those needing tools for mathematical modelling and large datasets, such as those doing engineering, science and some humanities courses.  Such courses are generally greater contributors to innovation in Australia and development of Barry Jones’ "clever country" that provide economic benefit, the end for which the "education revolution" is one of the means.

Delivering the funds

The mechanism of tax rebates for funding computing capabilities to students was criticized by Gerard Henderson (ABC "Lateline" 2007-10-22) because lower-income families will find it difficult to stump up the capital investment.  This argument particularly applies to teenage parents attempting to complete secondary education.  Yet it is families on welfare benefits who are most likely to be in desperate need of computing resources.

Indeed, I’d argue that the educational institutions can be the best "vendors", as they can get discounts for bulk purchases, whereas increasing demand from individuals allows individual computer stores to increase prices.

Funding bulk purchases through schools (with parents paying the difference between the cost and rebate) would also provide some assurance to the government that computers were indeed being used by students, rather than being used by parents with the children getting "hand-me-downs".  It is worth noting that many successful programs providing cheap calculators were run by individual schools in the late 1970s.

What should get funded? Not software!

Hardware and some internet connectivity is a obligatory expense, while software is not so deserving of government funds as free open source software is readily available that performs the same functions.  Indeed, software useful in education is often developed by educational institutions and open source, and the more sophisticated the data-handling requirement, the more likely it is available for Linux rather than Microsoft systems.

For primary students, in particular those in remote areas, an appropriate computing resource is not the common PC, but the One Laptop Per Child package of hardware and software that costs US$200: well within the amount Rudd intends to provide.

Further arguments for open-source software as the best way of efficiently delivering resources were obviously accepted by countries such as China, which created the state-sponsored Red Flag Linux, or Brazil, which provides a budget package of hardware and a custom Linux for its poor.

Yet another reason for the government to prefer Linux-based PCs if the objective is education is that if children have resistance to using Linux rather than Microsoft, it is almost certainly because fewer games are available for Linux.  Would a Rudd government want to encourage children to waste time playing the latest shoot-em-up rather than use their PCs for work?

What connectivity should be funded?

It is worth considering separating out the funding for hardware from the funding for internet connectivity, as the varies greatly between metropolitan, provincial and rural areas.  The more remote the student, the more funds should be available for connection fees.

It is also appropriate to limit funding to that required for basic data volumes: schoolwork would only require minimal downloads, and funds used for blegabytes of downloads are unlikely to be used for education, but misdirected to non-education purposes such as downloading movies and music: and probably not by the student.

Who benefits from the Rudd Proposal?

Encouraging use of Microsoft products not only contributes directly to the national debt, but creates addicts that will continue to send funds overseas: it’s almost like providing funds for student lunches, but allowing them to be spent on McDonalds fast food delivered to schools.

Because of increased consumer demand, it is likely to increase demand and thus prices for hardware, allowing retailers to increase their margins.

Those with the greatest discretionary income are more likely to get the greatest rebates, making this proposal regressive.

Who will improve the package?

While the ALP could fine-tune their proposed package for greater benefit, Rudd will not want to be seen as having a policy that has not been thought through completely.

The Howard/Costello team would never advocate the suggested improvements, as the proposals are the direct opposite of their generally regressive policies biased for corporate profits.

The Greens and Democrats, however, could put forward similar proposals to the public.  Even FamilyFirst, because of the greater security offered by Linux systems minimizes the risk of infection and consequent exposure of children to pornography, might get behind my ideas.


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