A recent Associated Press report says that school districts in at least 15 states are having a lot of trouble getting enough laptops for their students to start classes this fall, which are partly or completely online in many communities. Once hailed as the revolutionary solution to education’s problems, the personal computer has now become more or less as necessary as the backpack for many elementary through high school students. But many districts are finding that their well-intentioned efforts to loan laptops to students are being frustrated by manufacturer shortages from suppliers such as Dell, Lenovo, and HP.
Not every district buys or leases a laptop for every student. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed much instruction online, there was concern that the so-called “digital divide” was creating a two-tier environment in which students whose families could afford a laptop were gaining a seemingly unfair advantage over students who had none. Many schools have computer labs, but homework is homework, and it’s clearly an advantage to have your own laptop to do homework after school hours.
Following the emergency transition to online learning in the spring, hundreds of districts across the country placed orders for tablets and low-end laptops such as Chromebooks. But in July, the U. S. Commerce Department sanctioned eleven Chinese manufacturers for violations such as the use of force labor, and some of these companies make either whole laptops or vital components for Lenovo and other laptop firms.
Last spring, HP told California’s Morongo Unified School District that their order of 5,000 laptops would arrive in time for school to start on Aug. 26. Then came the Department of Commerce order, and the delivery date slipped into September, then October. According to the article, California school districts in general are waiting for a total of at least 300,000 back-ordered laptops.
Like most supply problems, this one will get straightened out eventually. But a combination of crises and governmental actions have conspired to create a shortage of something that was until recently regarded as something of a luxury: a laptop for one’s child.
I teach engineering students at a state university, and when we suddenly transitioned last March to online instruction, I was pretty confident that all my students had access to a decent computer and Internet connection. With one or two exceptions, that assumption was justified. Nevertheless, I have taken the precaution of sending out an email survey asking about their ability to connect to Zoom, to scan papers, and other things that I’d like them to be able to do this fall for the online portions of my courses.
Of course, in doing so I assume that the students can receive emails. This may not be universally true, and in fact here it is the day before classes begin, and I still have not heard back from some of the students I sent the survey to. I’m attributing that to last-minute-itis rather than an inability to receive emails, but time will tell.
The school laptop shortage brings up a general question, which is whether government entities such as school districts are under an obligation to provide expensive technology such as laptops to all their students. This is both a question of justice and a question of charity.
The question of justice goes to the heart of the idea of public schools, which is that a well-run republic requires an educated electorate who share a common minimum of learning: the ability to read, a basic knowledge of the country’s history and governmental organization, and such other skills that contribute to the making of a good citizen. Education costs something, and so a large share of local and state taxes go to public schools. If computer use becomes a necessary part of learning, as COVID-19 has encouraged us to think, then it is almost a breach of justice to fail to supply a necessary learning tool to every student who needs one.
There are various practical obstacles in the way to this noble goal, however, of which the current laptop shortage is only one. What if a family is well enough off to buy their children their own laptops? Should we reserve the “free” laptops only to those families who can’t afford their own? Or for purposes of software uniformity, etc., should we make everybody buy or use the same type of machine? These mundane issues have to be worked out with what the theologians call “prudential judgment,” which means mainly common sense and wisdom. Neither of those things is in abundant supply right now, but we still have enough to muddle through each week as it comes along, it seems.
The question of charity, in the sense of merciful and loving behavior toward others, is not much thought of these days. The very word “charity” is looked down on in some circles as demeaning to the one who receives it. I recall several high-profile efforts a few years back on the part of various foundations to provide a laptop for every child in certain underprivileged regions. What at first looked like extravagant generosity has eventually become routine, and now the almost-unheard-of gift looks more like a commonplace necessity.
There must have been a moment in this country when the first public school system bought the first book to be used free of charge by a student, and it was probably controversial at the time. This attitude that the school is doing you an unmerited favor by letting you use its books has lingered in some forms down to recent years. I’m old enough to remember feeling vaguely threatened by fines and imprisonment every fall when our teachers handed out the well-thumbed textbooks issued by the Fort Worth Independent School District, with the warning that they were state property and defacing state property was a crime. I dread to think what happens to the California third-grader who drops his Lenovo on the sidewalk, but maybe it’s not as bad as it could be.
Here’s hoping that the supply chains get unkinked and that every student who needs to use one finds a laptop somewhere. My first place to suggest looking is the closet. I think I saw somewhere that the average U. S. household has about 2.3 old computers sitting around in garages and attics, many of which still work. So dust those off and give them away to your neighbors with small children, and strike a blow for both justice and charity.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.