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Technology vendors have long viewed the state of Arizona as rich pickings. In addition to the Federal pork barrel, state tax payers have found over $60m dollars for IT investment.

Now a high school in Tuscon is abandoning textbooks entirely, at the urging of the school district's technology evangelist, who appears to have caught the religion big time.

Instead of spending $600 per head on textbooks, Vail High School in Tucson will buy each of its 350 sophomores an $850 laptop. That shouldn't be too difficult - the school itself is located in a science park. But the Tucson school district's superinterindent, an enthusiastic technology evangelist called Calvin Baker, candidly admits he doesn't know quite how it will all work.

But he is adamant that the publically accessible computer networks can replace traditional textbooks. We unearthed this quote from him, from August 2004.

"If we can rely on almost limitless information available on the Internet, why do we need a textbook?" he asked.

Perhaps this site answers Calvin more succinctly, in eleven short paragraphs, than we can. Or perhaps he can look at empirical evidence gathered from over 30 countries around the world, which discovered that computer use actually reduces childrens numeracy and literacy skills.

Schoolchildren were developing a "problem-solving deficit disorder", and losing the ability to analyze, the Royal Economic Society concluded.

Mind you, they were pretty nifty with the trackpad - and had picked up some k3wl Google tricks.

Of course, a computer in the classroom doesn't make a good teacher bad, and a textbook doesn't make a bad teacher effective. But try telling this to a techno utopian.

Digital factory

In 1998, the historian David Noble organized a conference titled Digital Diploma Mills, which focussed on the increasing industrialization of education. As often as not, tech-heavy education led to "glitzy software and shoddy pedagogy" and severed bonds between teacher and pupil, reported Langdon Winner.

Today, the industrialization process is advocated without any apparent irony. The Arizona Educational Technology Plan, approved this January, calls for "an information factory, supported by a data warehouse [to] provide the longitudinal information needed for improving education in Arizona." [PDF, 630kb].

What is longitudinal information - and where does your child fit in? We don't have a clue.

And Vail High School's website seems to have undergone an intriguing, Sims-style makeover.

In addition to the traditional menu navigation, you're invited to "CLICK ON OBJECTS TO NAVIGATE SITE" in a Flash-enabled version of the SIMS. Simply rollover the pictures to hear the sound effects. Having made textbooks virtual, we need only make the nodes students themselves virtual to optimize the educator's experience.

Baker's slightly scary vision of his pupils as mere Sims nodes is a fascinating social experiment. With only internet resources such as Wikipedia available to Tuscson's pupils, they should be able to emerge blinking into the adult world with a round knowledge of everything from Ayn Rand to the Klingon grammar.

Which will be very useful if the earth is subject to an attack by Klingon-speaking, libertarian aliens. ®

Related resources for parents

The Alliance For Childhood
Computers and Student Learning - Fuchs & Wößmann, Royal Economic Society report

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How computers make kids dumb

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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