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TECHNOLOGY IN Education School Needs: Basic? Or Mega-Giga-Cool?

It's a fact: Computers in the classrooms are no longer considered a luxury in educating students. They are necessities.

But many school districts haven't got the budget to keep up with the rapid evolution of computer technology, and there aren't enough machines to go around.

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It is true that many states are failing to provide the broad-based technological capacity necessary to make our children competitive.

But, there's a foolish leap of logic involved in trying to resolve this problem by pouring money into outfitting schools with the most up-to-date technology. This does more to exacerbate the problem than to solve it.

What is needed is not megabucks but common sense.

The problem is not the cost of technology. The problem is our obsession with mega-giga-cool stuff. Our love affair with "Rolls Royce" technology has run headlong into the wall of tight school budgets. And we are failing to examine what is appropriate technology for the tasks at hand.

It is not necessary to teach children essential technology skills on a $2,000 computer. In truth, it is a waste of both valuable taxpayer resources and computer horsepower.

Yet, in too many school districts the choice presented to taxpayers is between having the best or nothing at all. Meanwhile, we miss an opportunity to "recycle" computers and thereby take advantage of the planned "obsolescence" the computer industry has built into its marketing efforts.

A $5,000 investment in technology today can purchase between three to four computers with mega-giga-cool stuff. Or it can purchase one high-powered computer and 22 to 30 previous-generation computers capable of doing almost everything the more expensive computers can do - albeit a bit slower. These are not computers that belong in a museum - in many cases, only weeks before they were running American businesses.

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We obsess over state-of-the-art technology and turn up our noses at older, less-powerful computers, thereby denying our children quality time with any computers. In short, the income gap is further broadened by the technology gap, and our children's opportunities are needlessly limited.

Each year more than 15 million computers are surplused by corporations and individuals in America, while there are still too few computers in our schools. These two problems are the yin and yang of a real solution - bring them together and you have the roots of revolutionary change.

Ask the parents of the children at the Walker Elementary School in Concord, N.H. Although one of the "poorest" schools in Concord, it has a stunningly high number of computers to students. Here, fourth-grade teacher Steve Rothenberg has taken first- and second-generation Macintoshes and 386 and 486 PCs, and has equipped most of the school with desktop technology.

In addition, he has instituted a take-home technology program where students can own an older generation computer for about $200 and make monthly payments into a replenishment fund for students next year. On almost nonexistent technology budgets, Mr. Rothenberg, and a few others, are training their students to meet the challenges of the next century and keeping taxpayers happy at the same time. Students at the Walker Elementary School don't have mega-giga-cool stuff on their desks, but when they do sit in front of a computer that has it, they are fearless.

Also, ask the folks at the East-West Education Development Foundation in Boston, where technicians and volunteers refurbish thousands of older generation computers every year. For between $100 and $200, East West can produce an Internet-ready 486 computer with a 12-month warranty.

The Providian National Bank Corp. has been a leader in providing "recycled technology" to New Hampshire schools and organizations. In just the past year they have sponsored more than 200 computers through the East West Foundation. This month alone more than 100 computers will be making their way to schools and organizations in central New Hampshire.

If we are to harness the technological revolution to our advantage, we must be more focused on mega-giga-seat-time in front of a computer than mega-giga-cool stuff.

* Wayne D. King is president of Moosewood Marketing & Communications, an international consultancy specializing in education and technology based in Rumney, N.H. He was also the 1994 New Hampshire Democratic nominee for governor.

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