Pay teachers well, but do not snatch laptops from the little school children

Friday July 5 2013


Last week, a colleague laughed at me when he caught me referring to hand-written notes while writing my column. “We don’t do that any more,” he chortled, “what do you think computers are for?”

In my defence, I pleaded Chapter 4 of the 2010 Constitution which assures me of my fundamental right to do whatever I wish within the law, but he was not convinced, pointing out that my analogue propensities would finish me sooner or later.

He was probably right. You see, my technophobia is legendary, and I have long recognised that I am only a step away from the manual typewriter, although I do use the computer for simple editing tasks.

But this is not about me and my annoying habit of making work harder for myself; it is about the future. In fact it is about the grand Jubilee laptop-for every-schoolchild vision which has, unfortunately, become a rallying point for those who want to play partisan politics.

I wholeheartedly support the laptops project, not only because I do not want future generations associated with my lineage to ask how on earth people survived without information technology, but also because, if the idea works, it will revolutionise everything and in a few decades, we shall be eons ahead of other African countries.

The laptops project is a big Jubilee dream, but given goodwill, it will become attainable. Ten years ago, few people would have thought that free and compulsory education for all primary and secondary school learners was feasible, but today, millions of children are benefitting from an education they would have missed.

This does not mean that the implementation of that particular project has not been without its hiccups. In a notoriously corrupt country like ours, nobody should have expected it to be smooth sailing.

But the fruits of that investment will very soon become manifest if we get our economic basics right, for an educated, computer-literate labour force will be a huge boon for this country.

Let us get the issues right. The laptops to be issued to primary school children from next year are not intended to make everyone a Bill Gates. They are supposed to aid learning at the basic level, to make information retrieval easier, and, maybe, to aid innovation. They will be just another teaching tool.

In any case, it will be nothing revolutionary. It is clear that the e-education concept has come of age, judging from the number of countries trying it out right now. They include the UK, the US, Mexico, India, and even Ghana. The only difference is that most of these are developed countries.

I saw my first computer 30 years ago in some computer laboratory in the US. It was a beastly, menacing IBM contraption that took ages to process information, and that not very well.

Today, they are shoving computers into their pockets and calling them smart-phones. Today they have tablets, iPads, netbooks, kindles and whatnot. There has been a virtual revolution in ICT in that time.

The government only wants is to furnish our children with the basics of computer use. What is so difficult about that? You cannot, of course, dismiss off-hand the reservations expressed about the efficacy of the laptops project in terms of national priorities.

Those arguing that the money allocated to the project would be better used to build more classrooms may have a point. Those saying the security of the devices cannot be guaranteed do have a point, too.

But those arguing that the money would be better used to pay striking teachers miss the point altogether, for teachers will always agitate for higher salaries. What other projects of national import will have to be shelved to placate them when that happens next?
This “solution” may appear pragmatic at the moment, but it is, in my view, quite myopic.