Buying crumbs with money that could have bought the loaf

Many taxpayers are questioning whether free laptops for students will actually result in a  better quality education?

Many taxpayers are questioning whether free laptops for students will actually result in a
better quality education?

Undeniably, governments are put in place not for the pursuit of what’s expedient for them, but rather for the purpose of pursuing the country’s best interest.  Additionally, governments should know that they are not the only ones capable of determining what is in the country’s best interest, and should at all times be ready to consider ideas coming from their constituents.

It was in that vein that this author sought through my article in the STAR earlier this year called “An idea for growth—replace school books with PCs and other media” to suggest a better usage of the expenditure for the promised laptops.

My proposal would have resulted in a real modernization of learning and education at a cost lower than what the government has committed to spending on laptops for fourth formers and the $500 bursary to first formers over the next three years combined.  The proposal could have obviated the need for secondary school books as early as the first year of the proposed project.

If the government had gone in that direction, the country would only be spending on portable PCs (not necessarily that huge ThinkPad Laptop) for secondary school students, and not a dime on schoolbooks. With the current implementation, those fourth formers would still have to buy books and carry them to school when they could have had a lighter portable PC with no books!

We are now being told that ‘laptop freeness’ is not really a campaign promise, but a start of the bigger plan to replace books with PCs (as my proposal represented), which according to the Prime Minister may take about five to ten years to achieve.  With all due respect to Dr. Anthony and his education minister colleague, this is as good as saying that we are heading to Canaries by moving northerly from Castries along the Choc Highway.

True, we would eventually get there, but why not just drive southerly along the west coast road? As someone who has worked in the information technology industry, I see it quite differently.  A more meaningful start would have been to equip teachers with portable PCs and projectors, to create a web portal where they could commence the process of generating, uploading and validating content, and also to train the teachers.

At the opportune time, the system could be rolled out to first formers for piloting without the government even having to foot the bill for their PCs.  It would always be much cheaper for a parent to buy two or even three portable PCs in five years than books for those years!

Even at that stage, the poor would begin to accrue benefits. Presently, the poor must still buy books!  We are indeed squandering a great opportunity to do something really special for the poor people of this country instead of this flashing mirror.

So, am I upset about the fact that the government has given the students laptops?  Of course not!  How could gifts to the poor be a bad thing?

While in the mood for making gifts, the government can go further to paying a monthly $500 cheque to the unemployed youth to ease their squeeze?  We can also go the Guyana route to place a laptop in each household ($156M).  Or, increase the STEP wage to a more livable one?  That would be good too, right?

Of course it would!  Who does not like freeness?

Forget the fact that freeness from government increases the average prices of goods and services for the very same people receiving the freeness; but hmmm, who cares?

Let’s grab the freeness.

But the hot button issue is: Can we afford it?

Our country is currently sinking in a dreadful economic whirlpool with no end in sight.  We are experiencing unprecedented business mortality; unemployment is rising uncontrollably!  This is the time for serious fiscal prudence–every additional dollar spent by the state at this point should be seeking in one way or another to grow the economy. This is not the time to be wallowing in social programming – that time will come.

There is an immediate opportunity for farmers to reduce the high food import bill and create employment for themselves and others but they can’t do so due to lack of capital.  The agriculture sector gets the thinnest slice of the Saint Lucia Development Bank (SLDB)’s budget each year.  This is the context within which this laptop expenditure should be assessed or analyzed, not the absolute fact that poor people are getting a laptop for the first time. Or, how great an idea it is.

That is why, as a concerned patriot, instead of sitting back and waiting to criticize as some do, I sought to provide the government with a better alternative since March 2013. I realized that they were hell bent on giving away the laptops so I offered a suggestion that would maximize the benefits of that expenditure in positively affecting learning and to give the poor greater access to education.

Giving a student a laptop does not equate to giving them an education or technology. The proposal would level the education playing field for poor students and slow learners. It would give them a facility to rerun lecture videos at their own pace and from any content uploaded by the best teachers around the island.  Teachers would be able to ‘push’ content (homework, notes, etc) onto the devices even as classes are in progress, without the necessity of accessing the internet or sending them emails.

Fellow Saint Lucians, that proposal was not rocket science.  Besides, St. Joseph’s Convent has been using the concept informally for a while now via Khan Academy and other content sites.

At best, this laptop project in its current form is nothing but an expensive political instrument to dazzle the poor into believing that the political directorate is actually delivering on their campaign promises.  But not all campaign promises should be pursued in these hard times.  This laptop project is one of those.  Delivering laptops at the expense of taxpayers is no feat to shout about, especially when it adds to the national debt. There is no cerebral activity involved in this!

The campaign promise that most of us want delivered urgently is certainly not laptops, but rather jobs and economic prosperity.   We need greater assistance in the agricultural sector so that we can produce at least some of the six to eight container loads of fruits and vegetables that we import fortnightly.

Some of you would not believe it, but this country imports pumpkins, water melon, lettuce, cabbages, okra, kale, tomatoes, pineapples, spinach, when all of those crops can be produced locally on a year round basis. This is where we need to see the worth of our government.  How do we correct that?  This is one of the places where monies should be spent at this time.

We certainly need to get serious about managing this country otherwise we will be heading for the sewers with much haste. It is my hope that we don’t repeat the error next year and that we properly commence the process of replacing textbooks with PCs which would give the poor a better chance at an education.



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