I’m old enough to remember my grandmother doing the washing in an old copper boiler and then wringing the clothes out with a hand operated set of rollers. She persisted with this even after she was given a new electric machine, claiming that the new machine wasn’t as good as the old way. I also remember being told how some people were concerned that ballpoint pens would ruin handwriting if they replaced quills and inkwells.

When I began teaching 30 years ago, I was ostracised for letting students use calculators for maths lessons. It seems that new technology takes a while for people to accept. This is certainly the case with computers and other information communication technology. I must confess that I am a bit anal-retentive when it comes to technology. I have resisted getting a new mobile phone because I just want a gadget that will make phone calls. The new phones do so many tasks I wouldn’t know where to start. I do believe however, that it is vital that we embrace new technology and assimilate it into our education system. Being literate no longer implies simply being able to read and write. It also includes being able to use computers, mobile phones, digital cameras, iPods, etc.

Our new Prime Minister acknowledged the importance of this when he said he’d provide a laptop for every secondary student. I believe all students should have their own computers and that computers should be used across the whole curriculum, for Maths, English, Science, etc. Only having computer labs and teaching computer lessons is not the best way to teach computer use in my opinion. The best way to learn about computers is to use them in context. I experienced an example of this at my current school where we replaced written reports with computer-generated reports. We did some workshops with the Excel spreadsheet program, but it wasn’t until teachers actually had to start doing the reports that they fully understood how to go about it. Theory is great, but you can’t beat practice. We know that English is not taught in isolation, but in the context of each key learning area. Computer literacy needs to follow this model also.

Giving someone a tool is useless unless you teach them how to use it. I believe Kevin Rudd’s generosity is naïve. Putting a laptop in front of a student doesn’t make him/her any more knowledgeable than standing in a garage makes you a mechanic. We’re constantly being told that we need more tradesmen. Should we simply put young people in Bunnings for a couple of days and expect tradesmen to walk out the door because they have been exposed to tools? It’s not the laptop that’s so important, but the pedagogy that goes with it.

It is my experience that some of the older teachers are phobic or wary of new technology and a lot of the young graduates are not necessarily computer literate either. Until we have a computer literate teaching profession, buying laptops for each student will be a major waste of money. Why not abolish the sales tax on computers used for education purposes or give rebates like the councils do with water tanks? This would make them more affordable. We could then use the money set aside for laptops to create an infrastructure of perpetual training for our teachers.

Also, in my experience, every school needs a ‘computer nerd’ or someone who can trouble-shoot when things go wrong. We currently do, as most other schools do and that is we pay someone an extraordinary amount of money to come and do maintenance on our server and computers. Schools can apply for chaplains, so why not ‘computer nerds?’ It’s no good someone giving me a new Ferrari if there are no mechanics in Australia who know how to service it for me.

One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher and principal is having a problem with my computer and not knowing how to fix it. When the technician arrives he speaks a foreign language that only computer technicians understand. Actually, if you have ever needed to ring a manufacturer’s help line such as ACER or Dell you will find that the technicians really do speak a foreign language and you need an interpreter to understand them.

They say that, if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I would add that, as fish become harder to catch, you must constantly review your fishing practices. One lesson is not enough. Information technology changes so rapidly that we must continue training people ‘how to fish’.

A final thought – I worked in Bowraville, NSW with an Aboriginal community. We often used to fish at the same creek. I had my graphite rod with state-of-the-art reel and braided line while they had spools and hand lines. They out-fished me every time. I had the latest technology, but they had local knowledge and experience.

While computers and mobile phones, etc. are great, practical skill and common sense are what really count. Many of our children are glued to small screens and computer games already. We don’t want to create a culture that is so dependent on machines that it loses a hands-on approach to solving problems.

Miro Martin is a school principal with decades of experience in the education system.