There's a central issue that has been lost in the debate over Anne Arundel County's school computers and their high price: Just what do children learn by using them?
Next month,the school system will pour an additional $750,000 into its Advanced School Automation Project, nicknamed ASAP. The plan calls for installing computer labs in each of the county's 117 schools and then linking the labs.
Many schools already have makeshift labs used every day to teach everything from pattern recognition for kindergartners to history for fifth-graders.
"The computers are especially helpful for children in the lower grades because they get to work on exactly what they need help on," said Andrea Rose, a computer technician at Freetown Elementary. "We can provide them with more individualized attention. The thing that is most important is that the computer management system logs the time the students are working on the computer so it's easier to spot when someone's having trouble with a particular skill."
Students in her class have individualized computer programs to help them learn skills from spelling to calculating odds. They also had the benefit of her Prodigy network account and corresponded over the Internet, a worldwide network of computer databases, with students around the world.
"The students in Italy liked Snoop Doggy Dogg -- sung in English, no less," Mrs. Rose said, referring to the rap star. "[The computers] helped them with geography. We worked on symbols for the country and their mapping skills. This makes them more aware of their place in the world."
There are critics, however.
"We don't use computers in our classrooms at all with the students," said Arthur Pittis, a senior teacher at the Waldorf School in Baltimore.
"We're not latter-day Luddites," he said, referring to a group of English workers that smashed textile machinery in a fruitless protest of the Industrial Revolution. "But when technology such as this is brought into a school,you have to think about what it is supplanting."
Point-and-click math lessons on a computer, he said, are "a very different activity than the gathering and counting of things and dividing them into quantities and having a sense that mathematics has a certain relationship to the world."
He also dismissed the concept that computers provide individualized attention for students.
"Is it individual attention when one person is sitting in a room watching a TV broadcast that's going out to millions of people?" Mr. Pittis asked. "Or is it individual attention when a teacher makes a direct human contact with a child?"
Linda Roberts, director of the office of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, said, "It's important to have that dissenting voice, but the evidence is just the opposite. Today's computer and interactive resources are changing our society as much as the invention of the printing press changed society. It's that order of magnitude. I think it becomes unthinkable to not have technology be part of the classroom environment."
There is no question that much of the work could be done without computers, but tomorrow's leaders need to use tomorrow's technology, said Linda Ziegenfuss, the computer technician for the Crofton Meadows Elementary lab.
"It's like saying my grandfather was a carpenter who used hand tools, and my son should still use hand tools," Ms. Ziegenfuss said. "My son would be using power tools today."
Parents obviously agree with her. When there is no county or federal money for computers, parents and teachers go to great lengths to raise money to buy them, get corporate donations or collect grocery receipts for company giveaway programs.
Students familiar with computers say they would rather use them than paper and pencil.
"In second and third grade it helped me out with my times tables, and it really helps with your mental math," said Matthew Schultz,10, who just graduated from the fifth grade at Crofton Meadows Elementary School. "You had to think really fast, and if you didn't get it right, you had to do it again. If you sit there and write and do problems, it gets boring. Using the computer is learning, but it's fun."
Matthew's classmates are the first Crofton Meadows graduates who have had a chance to work with computers every year since kindergarten. The school's 32-station computer lab was installed when it was built, and this year the school participated in the ASAP pilot program.
Matthew's mother, Lana Schultz,said she was skeptical of computers in school at first.
"Initially, I thought they were just playing games,but as I got more involved in the school I saw they were teaching the children and working with them with their writing and in math," she said. "I was completely won over."
Each class gets one hour a week in the lab; kindergartners get half an hour. Lessons range from preparing video presentations on "People Who Made A Difference," such as environmentalist Rachel Carson, to studying pioneers and crossing the Oregon Trail on computer.
"The educational possibilities are endless. It just depends upon the imagination of the person working with the computer," Ms. Ziegenfuss said. "Sure, you could make a map with a pencil and a piece of paper, but if they went out for a job would they be creating a map with a pencil and paper? I don't think so."