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The Michigan Department of Education has announced an ambitious plan to get laptops into the hands of the state’s 130,000 sixth graders for use at school and with their homework.

Dell, Apple, and a range of other companies are already lining up to compete for what they estimate will be $156 million of business over the first four years of the program.

Apple already holds the contract for the program which Gov. Angus King has launched in Maine to insure that every seventh grade student and teacher in the much smaller state has access to a laptop. Educators in both states are trumpeting the educational benefits of insuring that no child is left behind when it comes to accessing the digital realm.

These laptops can provide the infrastructure to support a range of other educational experiments and developments, designed to give kids greater access to pedagogical resources. They can help move us from an age where the computer is something they keep in labs to one where the computer is something they use everyday in many different ways in their classrooms.

In the Comparative Media Studies program, we are developing digital databases designed to enhance the teaching of core humanities subjects – everything from the Declaration of Independence to Moby Dick – building on the success of Peter Donaldson’s pioneering Shakespeare Electronic Archive. We have also announced the launch of the Education Arcade, a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and we hope, many other colleges and universities to promote development of educational games, the creative use of existing commercial games in the classroom, the development of tools so teachers can design location-specific hand held games, and the growth of media literacy efforts where kids design their own games as part of the learning process.

As we learned over the past decade, it isn’t enough to wire the classroom or expand computer resources if you are not going to put an equal effort and money into the development of curricular materials and practices which creatively and intelligently deploy that new infrastructure. You need to develop the teacher training programs and technical support which allows them to rethink old practices and develop new approaches appropriate for the digital age.

It is clear what computer companies have to gain from giving every school child a laptop not just in terms of state contracts but also in terms of building their consumer base for the future. But educators need to see this as the first step towards solving some of the problems confronting education. If the computer giveaway is all that happens, we should be prepared for disappointment.

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