December 1998 // Letters to the Editor
The Real Cost of Computers
by Tom Hazlett
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Tom Hazlett "The Real Cost of Computers" The Technology Source, December 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I found Glenn Ralston's November letter (Ralston, 1998) quite interesting—which, of course, is to say that it makes a number of points with which I agree quite strongly. In the jargon of economists, quality-adjusted price decreases have drastically reduced the cost of computing in recent years. Educators who talk in nominal terms about the expense of a product which is dynamically evolving confuse the issue greatly.

This is not to say that computers can be brought into classrooms at zero cost, however. Indeed, there is an important economic issue involved here, but it is apparently distinct from that most often offered by the scholars who raise this issue (as cited in Ralston's letter). It is the expense involved in retraining the educators, tooling them up to adopt—and teach—the new methods. The raw technology, the 'hardware,' will not be of much use without teachers equipped to utilize it effectively. This introduces another important consideration.

I would suspect that the resistance to the new technology on the part of certain education interests is driven by the fact that much of this transition/retraining cost will likely be borne by the teachers themselves. That is, they will have to learn new methods. Here's an analogy: The U.S. Weather Service went decades without adopting advanced computer technology in forecasting meteorological trends, even when private sector services were demonstrably more advanced in their methods and in predictive accuracy. According to agency insiders, the management of the agency was thoroughly resistant to modern techniques which were by and large the aegis of young, recent college graduates. The executive decision was made to cling to increasingly obsolete technology despite being outperformed by forecasters with a similar mission.

I don't believe this is an uncommon phenomenon, and it is likely to be involved in the explanation of why the teaching establishment has been so slow to adopt the newer methods, even as these methods are cost-effective (when quality adjustments are taken into account) tools for improving students' learning. Solutions would involve creating incentives for the adoption of successful technical innovation, including a compensation system where teacher rewards are positively correlated with student achievement—almost the reverse of the status quo.

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