Laptops vital for modern education but extend the rich-poor divide

rich poor divide
The cost is simply too much for some students and parents. Source: Shutterstock.

For many parents and students, education, though essential, comes at high cost. Whether you are a fee-paying university student or a state-school-attending secondary school pupil, there are many unavoidable costs to studying.

In the past, parents and students may have had to foot the bill for textbooks, pencils, paper, and the like. But now, with the rise of technology inside (and outside) of the classroom, students are often expected to have their own laptop, too.

When applied the right way, edtech undeniably has its benefits; it increases collaboration and inclusivity as it encourages students to work together on a global scale. And of course, with global Internet and smartphone penetration increasing every day, students are going to be on their mobiles in the classroom at some point anyway.

Tech advocates have also made strong cases for the benefits of a connected classroom, including that they are helping narrow the education gap for the developing world.

But here’s one problem with making technology compulsory in schools: social pressures.

The poorer kids will want to be as well-equipped as their higher-income peers but just can’t afford to keep up.

Speaking with The Canberra Times, Queanbeyan mother Naomi Reeves said students at her daughter’s school in Canada are required to bring their own laptop to class.

The cost of a laptop, nearly AUD1500 (US$1200) for a new Apple MacBook, was a monumental expense for Reeves.

“We had to fork out a huge amount of money on a new laptop for our daughter,” she said. “It was easily the biggest expense.”

While arguably she could have bought a secondhand laptop for a fraction of the price, Reeves felt the chances of the machine withstanding the demands of her daughter’s schooling were slim.

How powerful a machine do students really need?

Choosing a laptop that will do everything you need it to for your studies is tough.

There is so much to consider; from how much space you need on the inside, to how much space it takes up on the outside.

What one student needs for their studies is likely to be entirely different from their neighbour’s needs.

UK secondary school teacher Ian Hollingsworth* told Study International the type of laptop a student may need is likely to change throughout the course of their education.

For example, he claimed primary school children are unlikely to need a device of their own, but when students reach secondary school it is helpful for them to have their own device for homework and research.

When students reach higher education, the device is likely to need to be tailored to the student’s course. If a student is undertaking a photography degree, they will need a device with ample storage; or for a gaming degree, they will need one with fast programming.

However, many students don’t consider the internal aspects of a device so much as what it looks like.

The pressure to look good

One significant– although arguably irrelevant – factor for many students is what the laptop says about them. Much like clothing and designer brands, there is immense pressure on students to own a certain brand.

Recent US-based graduate Alex Rees told Study International she always felt compelled to have a high-end laptop like a MacBook, through school and into university.

We can’t all afford laptops like this kitty. Source: GIPHY

“My parents have always been adamantly against the price of MacBooks so I had to save to buy one for myself,” she said.

For some students and parents, a laptop is totally unaffordable, no matter what price bracket they look at.

In response, many universities and schools allow students to rent a laptop, but it can be difficult for pupils to cope without one of their own.

Again, the pressure to conform and have a model from a high-end brand can really affect students who are forced to rent.

“Literally, everyone in my lectures had a MacBook of some description and if they did not have a Mac, they had an iPad,” Rees explained. “So many students owned MacBooks, that anyone on a Windows PC immediately stood out.”

“If you own a MacBook, you don’t stand out. You are like everyone else. If you don’t own a MacBook, you do and you’re normally silently judged.”

Many young people are terrified of standing out for the wrong reasons and devices such as laptops can be just another signifier of wealth.

More expensive doesn’t necessarily equal better

“When I first got my MacBook Pro, I was in love with it but four years on – and two MacBooks later – I don’t see any advantages of owning one over any other computer,” Rees told Study International.

Rees explained after graduating she can see how buying the higher end laptop did her little good.

“The display on my first MacBook broke countless times,” which was a nightmare to fix, she said.

On one occasion Rees’ high-end laptop broke the day before a deadline and in a panic, she bought the cheapest replacement she could find in order to complete her assignment and hand it in time.

“I ended up finishing my assignment in a coffee shop nearby with this cheap laptop because I would have failed otherwise,” she said.

It did the job just as good as any other laptop.

So are the big brands worth it? Probably not, Rees said.

“In reality, I could have bought a cheap laptop in the first place that works just as well if not better and saved a fortune.”

What do educators think?

UK primary school teacher Carol Johnson told Study International “technology as a gateway to a wealth of knowledge is a fabulous resource that all students should have.” However, she acknowledges realistically not all students have that privilege.

She added: “For those that do, younger children need almost to be protected from themselves and not left with unfettered access.”

“I imagine I have a different viewpoint to a secondary schoolteacher, and again to a university professor,” Johnson said.

“In a state primary, you would find either a computer suite or a mobile laptop trolley to enable a class at a time to work. We use them generally for research and presentation of work.”

She explained, “ideally children should have access to the Internet at home.”

“I know schools that regularly set computer homework – there are a wealth of really good educational sites – but this does rely on all children having access,” which unfortunately not all families can afford.

“In many schools [students having Internet access] is not a given and those without access are not the ones who are likely to avail themselves of access to school computers in their own time,” Johnson explained.

Students from poorer backgrounds are then left behind as their wealthier peers race ahead. Laptops present class challenges for all ages and levels of study in a multitude of ways, but as the digital world bleeds into our education system, it is seemingly impossible to avoid them.

* Asked to have name changed

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