Turn off the laptops so students learn

laptop-girls'There words where write' - the spellcheck said

THE Rudd Government is to be congratulated that its real education revolution is taking shape after only a year, including performance standards, the public reporting of results and rewards for top teachers. The provision of a personal computer or laptop for every student in Years 9 to 12, however, will not lift education standards.

The Computers in Schools program will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than originally estimated. As schools know, maintaining computers and running a reliable intranet to draw the best from the technology costs more than the capital investment. The cost blowout, however, is not the main reason to rethink the program.

The internet is many things. Used well, it is a vast, convenient library. It is also the world's largest repository of pornography, rumour and error. Broadband, PCs and laptops are not, despite political stunts, the basis of a "digital education revolution". Neither are they "the toolbox of the 21st century" as Kevin Rudd claimed in a catchy grab during last year's campaign. The best education toolbox for the 21st century is the same as in ancient Rome and the Victorian era: the human brain. In the wrong hands, the internet and computers impede rather than enhance its use.

In such subjects as English and drama, cutting and pasting slabs of text, instead of reading and analysing books and plays, is prevalent. Despite detection software, plagiarism and even buying assignments online is rife. Too often, studying Shakespeare means watching a DVD of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Watching it on individual laptops will not make it any more educational.

Spell and grammar checks, as frustrated employers and teachers over 50 know too well, are detrimental to spelling and grammar skills. The spell check indicates "there words where write" when their words were wrong. In word processing, those functions should be turned off at school. Nor should computers and calculators be used so often, especially in primary school, that they erode students' abilities to write by hand, learn their tables or solve maths problems.

On the positive side, computers have advanced such secondary subjects as design, accounting, information and computer technology and foreign languages. This is no reason to have them on all day, however.

Experienced secondary teachers understand why the internet has rendered much humanities research superficial. Geoffrey Partington, in an incisive Quadrant essay this month On the reading of books, explains how distorted arguments can mislead non-experts. Most students are ill-equipped, for instance, to evaluate emotive arguments, disguised online as fact, on contentious subjects such as global warming.

Well applied, the web has been a boon in some humanities study, making primary sources, even thousands of years old, readily accessible. Online resources like Hansard, UN and US State Department bulletins have also enriched good history students' assignments. The key is teachers helping students discern worthwhile material and weed out the rest. This means keeping the laptops shut most of the time as teachers take students through a rich content-based curriculum and the students focus on their books, as free as possible of what Partington calls "ideological capture".

Poorer teachers, whose own school and university educations were probably inadequate, find it too easy to disengage with the actual teaching as classes and homework become protracted Google sessions. But however well schools and parents filter out chat rooms, social sites and pornography, it is impossible to prevent students wasting online study and school time on games and entertainment that at best belongs in their leisure time.

Individual computers, which many students, including some of the poorest, already have at home, must not be allowed to impede the broader goals of the education revolution. This means keeping them off more often than on