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Slate and chalk go wireless in the backwoods of Arkansas

Nestled in the old, worn mountains of northeastern Arkansas, Independence County is about as far from wired as a community gets in 21st-century America. Aside from Oil Trough Bottom, a 15-mile tract of rich alluvial land, the county is best known for its public school system - one of the poorest, in dollars and in quality, in the country.

So when word got out this spring that every child in grades K-12 would soon be equipped with a Free Pad - a two-pound wireless touch-screen computer - students got a little carried away. "You can fit 'em in your pocket," exclaims third-grader Jordan Steele. "I'll never have to use a backpack again."

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The injection of cutting-edge technology into this remote region of rural Arkansas is part of a larger effort to measure the overall impact of computers on student performance.

A network of visionaries, through a three-year, $14 million pilot project in Arkansas, New York, California, Utah, and Hawaii, has set out to test the extent to which computers help children learn. But they take the question a step further: Might computers help children learn better than textbooks do?

"Free Pads are no different than a slate and a piece of chalk 100 years ago; we just have a different technology," says Sandi Morgan, founder of Kidztel, the New Hampshire-based company that, along with Free Pad developer Screen Media, is coordinating the project. "Children are choosing to sit in front of the computer and play games. We should utilize that natural attraction."

Free Pads, which cost corporate, private, and nonprofit sponsors $450 apiece, will be distributed to 10,300 students in the fall. "In 2004, this type of product will be very common," says Screen Media CEO Harald Grytten.

Independence County Superintendent Guy Santucci, keenly aware of the Arkansas Supreme Court mandate to improve a school system it deems "inadequate and inequitable," is ready for his students to be "networked with the world."

But computers are not motivators, insists Bruce Lincoln at Columbia University's Institute for Learning Technology. "The change has to be driven by the understanding that children create their own knowledge," Mr. Lincoln says. "This technology is merely a tool."