Several months ago, a Houston Chronicle columnist initiated a firestorm by suggesting that schools would be better off by abandoning the Macintosh and only buying Windows. Just as her biases led her to a clear decision, my biases lead me to a completely opposite conclusion, and I'll leave it up to you to decide whose interpretation is more reasonable. Our question is: are we really doing our children a disservice by forcing them to use a Macintosh instead of a Windows machine?
First, I need to establish a different premise regarding the purpose of computers in the classroom. I disagree with the columnist that the purpose of computers in education is to prepare students to use those same machines in the business world. This is an unrealistic goal for two reasons.
First, this seems to focus exclusively on students destined to go into a traditional finance, accounting, or management type of job. People currently looking for jobs in science, publishing, graphics, marketing, or education are most likely to be faced with a Macintosh, not a Windows machine. If the stated purpose of using computers in school were to teach students how to use those specific machines when they eventually get a job, then we would be have to offer both platforms in order not to discriminate against people going into these other areas of employment.
Second, what's ironic is that by the time most children are ready to enter the business world, the platform in use will probably be radically different from either the Macintosh or Windows. If you imagine just ten years ago, practically all students were either using DOS or an Apple II, both of which were character-based, didn't use a mouse, and had strict and unforgiving interfaces. Those people are now in the workforce, and I would not characterize them as unsuccessful computer users. Even two years ago, businesses were mostly using Windows 3.1. Even Win 3.1is radically different from the current business OS, Windows 95, and even more different from the next version, which will supposedly look more like Netscape and Microsoft Explorer. I'm willing to bet that if we decided to teach all students how to use Windows 95 and Netscape or Explorer 3.0, then that knowledge would be obsolete by the time most of them entered the workforce.
Here's where I offer what I believe to be the real reason for teaching students how to use computers. Our goal is to teach students to see computers as tools, just like rulers, paper, books, and libraries. We want them to realize that computers are easy to use and not to be scared of them. We expect students to learn how to use computers to solve problems and to find information.
The primary attribute that a computer must have before it is selected to be in a classroom is ease of use. Many years ago, my wife took a computer class based on DOS. She copied a program, character by character, directly out of the book. It didn't work; even the teacher couldn't understand why it didn't work. Understandably, she wasn't interested in ever using a computer again (until she saw my Mac). On the other extreme, I attended a Career Day six years ago at Deer Park Elementary School, and I spoke to all of the second graders about computer programming. As a Toastmaster, I knew that a rhetorical question makes a good introduction to a speech, because it captures the audience's interest and draws them into the speech. So, I began by asking them "have any of you ever used a computer?" I expected a few of them to raise their hand. What I got was about eighty children shouting "me, me, we have an Apple in our classroom!" These children were excited by computers and by using them, and there is no way that you will ever convince me that they are at a competitive disadvantage because their first OS was Apple DOS.
Continuing to examine our expectations of computers in the classroom, let's review the premise that a computer is a knowledge tool, a quick library, and a place to do work (on this purpose, both I and the columnist from the Chronicle agree). I contend that schools and parents (and shrewd businesspeople) buy Macintoshes because they allow users to accomplish more. The Southern California Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) sponsors yearly competitions for high school business students. In one competition, all students took the same test, written by a Windows user. It covered word processing, databases, spreadsheets, and graphing from the spreadsheet. The results were that the Windows students scored 49%, and the Mac students scored 79%. This demonstrates that students who learn on Macintoshes are more likely to succeed in the knowledge competition and accomplish the work that needs to be done, and this leads me to conclude that the Windows machines are what need to be purged from our schools, not the Macintoshes.
Even if there were no advantage for the students in using a Macintosh, there would still be a compelling reason to use them in the schools instead of Windows: cost. The recent HISD bond defeat should remind our schools that they must find new ways of cutting costs. Gartner Group, a premier computer consulting service, concluded in an October 1995 report that "support costs for Macintosh are approximately 25% lower than those for Windows" and "the higher the percentage of Macintosh, the lower the technical support costs." The report goes on to state "the major conclusion is that, while conventional wisdom night suggest that standardization on a single platform would lower technical support expenses, there is no premium associated with supporting both Macintosh and Windows."
I know that the Chronicle columnist implied that this often repeated study is bogus due to it being funded by Apple. Kate Berg, a Gartner Group representative, disputed this insinuation and replied: "Gartner Group has a strict research methodology which is unique to our organization, and culturally enforced. All analysts must go through a series of steps when developing positions on the products/services about which they write or speak. Any bias, or the mere potential for bias on the part of an analyst, would jeopardize the integrity of our organization and our installed base of clients." Furthermore, most technicians who have worked on both types of networks can attest to the ease of maintenance of the Mac and lower training costs (due to its ease of use). Businesses with in-house Information Technology departments can live with these costs, because they have staff on the payroll to support the network, and these salaries are expenses against taxes. Schools, which must bring in consultants and pay more attention to cash flow than to the depreciation, taxes, and Net Income cannot afford that luxury. Finally, since teachers are paid to teach, grade papers, etc., it's in their best interest to use the Macintosh, which lets them complete tasks quicker than if they were to use Windows.
Another cost savings is demonstrated by the Macintosh's longer life. Supposedly, Windows 95 will run on a 486 machine, but its performance is unacceptable if you try to run any applications on that machine. Typically, Windows machines which are older than two or three years are obsolete and practically unusable. On the other hand, I have a client running the latest version of Pagemaker on the latest Mac OS on a machine nearly ten years old with no problems. Whenever I read how many more Windows machines than Macintoshes are being sold, I consider how many of them are merely replacing old Windows machines.
So you can see how I reach my conclusion. There is no future employment reason to favor the instruction of a particular Operating System. However, since the Macintosh remains easier and cheaper to use, it better supports the function of education and must be maintained as the standard computer in the classroom.
Chuck Hinkle has been programming microcomputers since 1977. He is the owner of CLH WAREs, a computer consulting firm that specializes in database analysis and development for the Macintosh and for Windows. You can Email Chuck with your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at http://web-hou.iapc.net/~chuckh/.