Another laptop story

BitDepth#953 for September 09

Is the future of education in our children’s laptops? Photo by BigStock.
Is the future of education in our children’s laptops? Photo by BigStock.

Last week, the Ministry of Education scampered to respond to a claim by parent Julien Dedier that his daughter’s Government-issued laptop had been infected with spyware.

Education Minister, Dr Tim Gopeesingh then issued a statement that noted the “alleged discovery of this spyware,” as well as the “non-reporting of this incident to the Ministry of Education.”

The issue prompted Dr Gopeesingh to dive into a spiral of counter claims, claiming “strong administrative policies governing the laptops.”

“We have firewalling, we have anti-theft and anti-virus devices,” the Minister said, noting that unauthorised installation of software to the State’s property was undertaken.

Information Security expert Shiva Bissessar of Pinaka Technologies had questions of his own on the matter.

He wondered what Dedier had found and what tools he used in the discovery process.

“If there was a report from a reputable firm describing a methodology for scanning several freshly delivered laptops direct from the manufacturer or the ministry, which then revealed malware, this would be a source of concern,” he said.

Bissessar also warned against taking the Ministry’s assurances at face value. 

To discover more about the real world experience of school laptop use; I turned to a tech savvy user with a child who has used one for the last few years.

That user, who asked for anonymity and identity obfuscation because of the prestige school her child attends, answered questions about her experience with the system.

The computer, a Lenovo e425, was one of the 75,000 laptops issued by the Government to students entering secondary school over the last four years at a cost so far of more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

“It’s a basic Wintel laptop, with a low end processor, 2GB ram and a 300+GB hard disk.  Nothing that you would buy for yourself, but adequate,” she explained.

The school’s librarian runs an information technology literacy programme for incoming form one students.

She’s had to do maintenance on the computer over the years. The school has one part-time technician who oversees 600 Government-issued computers, a number that will jump to 750 in October.

Her child’s machine is one of the few from her cohort that still works.

“If there is a problem, I assume you can take it to him but there is nothing preventive.”

“I do maintenance from time to time so the machine is in good shape. However, I had to (ahem) subvert certain security controls, in order to do it.” 

“Most parents could not do this, and the other laptops I have seen, those that can still boot, are in a mess.”

The child uses the system regularly, mostly for research and typing, but also for viewing and drawing manga, a Japanese comics artform.

One major failing of the laptop programme appears to be a lack of continuity in the anti-virus software precaution. Most AV software is offered on a subscription model and expires after a year.

“Because I had taken control of the system I was able to replace the AV after the one-year subscription expired,” my source explained.

“I actually called the Ministry and spoke with the programme manager. He told me to speak with the school technician, but he said that he did not have the software. I got the impression that extending the AV for the life of the system had not been thought through.”

At least one major bit of surgery was undertaken on this system during its lifespan. 

“The hard disk died after two years so I called the agent, and they said that they would charge $250 to look at the system and that charge would be applied to any repairs.”

“However, I did not like the idea of paying to fix a machine that does not belong to me. I had a spare drive and a Windows 7 license hanging about, so, with the permission of the principal, I fixed the machine.”

This rental arrangement sets up an issue for parents overseeing these laptops.

“The GoRTT [contract] explicitly states that maintenance is the parents’responsibility after the first year. What I think happens is that many parents prefer to spend the money on a new laptop of their own, and the eCAL laptop is left to rot once it develops problems.”

Over the years, my source has no sense that teachers have been incorporating IT in the classroom.

“A one or two-week programme is not sufficient to change your teaching practice if you have taught in a particular way for many years,” she notes.

She has seen a Master’s thesis on the eCal programme that has found teachers struggling with the project and many, for the most part have given up, some even before getting started.

The issue raised by Julien Dedier sparks larger questions about the laptop distribution programme which appear to run counter to Government supplied information.

How exactly are parents supposed to perform maintenance on a system that they cannot access as it is given to them?

Why claim anti-virus protection when it expires after a year with no simple option to renew?

Has the government reviewed the technician to computer deployment ratios in schools?

How many government supplied laptops are still functioning and in use from that first deployment?

Is the honest opinion of teachers tasked to work with these systems being sought in order to improve the pedagogy?

I have only one source to rely on for my information and while that report isn’t as sensational as the one that made news last week, I suspect it merits even greater attention from the Education Ministry.

There has been a lot of positive interest and hope for the widespread introduction of computers to schools in T&T, but these are questions that have been muttered in school hallways and in tech circles from the start. 

It’s time that they were answered.