Teach over Tech- Screens in Schools Blog (3 children learning)

Why Old School Tech is Better than New

By: Dr. William Softky (guest blogger)

Considering investing in new computer hardware for your child, perhaps to make remote learning easier? There is one stand-out player — a non-commercial option — that is vastly cheaper, more reliable, more environmental-sound, and more secure than those touted in tv commercials.

Before the big reveal, let’s talk about how the big-brand, commercial options cost you money, time, and sanity…


Tablets are great for browsing the web. As machines for learning, however, they don’t stack up. Their screens strain the eyes. Their so-called touch keyboards frustrate. Available software and file management systems are poor. I could go on. No kid should ever do school on a tablet.


Netbooks (like Chromebooks) aren’t much better. They offer a lower price and a physical keyboard but are completely web-based. Users are forced to do everything through an online portal, allowing the manufacturer to see and indirectly control what users do. For example, Chromebook users looking to do more than browse the web must download web apps from the Chrome web store.

Subsidizing costs by pre-installing software is the netbook business model. They control the user. That’s why, in general, netbooks limit choice in a variety of ways. 

  • They force users to contend with uninstallable nagware and adware — often called bloatware, shovelware, or crapware. 
  • Netbook users can do very little offline — a real problem when connectivity is missing or down. 
  • Users can’t store and modify files on disk, can’t playback media without streaming. 
  • And, they certainly can’t reformat the drive and replace the operating system with a good free one like Linux (I’ve tried). 
  • Worst of all, users’ every keystroke is downloaded into a data mine; an everlasting dossier, or a dark permanent record.

Desktops and Laptops

As machines for learning, laptops are best; desktops are next best. Desktop computers are cheapest, most durable, and (being bulky) least likely to be stolen. But they don’t travel well and take up space. 

Physically, the best hardware platform is a laptop. But what kind of laptop? Windows or Mac? 

Mac laptops (especially older ones) are the best but most expensive option. Windows comes in at half the price, but has always been a nightmare to own — now, even more so. Windows routinely crashes. Many Windows laptops come pre-infected with unkillable pester-ware. They update themselves and/or shut down frequently and/or unpredictably. Software inconsistencies also accumulate over time to corrode the system into obsolescence within years.

A Better Way: Refurbishing an Old Laptop

About month ago I gave our son a ten-year-old Macbook, freshly updated by a local handyman to run the free operating system Linux. Because this solution makes no money for a large corporation, you’ll never see it advertised. But consider the advantages: 

  • recycling a used laptop keeps it out of landfill
  • the whole thing costs a few hundred dollars (used hardware plus a couple hours of installer’s time)
  • as an operating system Linux is industrial-strength and crash-proof, often running for years without rebooting or updating. No “beachballs.” 
  • the software doesn’t corrode
  • the mouse is fast
  • no ads, no hidden sponsorships, no data-tracking dossier
  • the final product will run until the Web goes away

Free Linux typically comes pre-loaded with other free software, like an office suite called LibreOffice whose files are compatible with Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. (Being designed by engineers for free, the user-interfaces can be annoying at first, but the software works fast and reliably enough to do real office work). For the internet, there are non-commercial browsers like Mozilla, which by default connect to little-known search engines, but go straight to Google if you ask, or to any other page you want. Between using Mozilla and LibreOffice, a child can be a normal computer user.

On Linux, a child can also become a super-user. That is, if you let them, they can administrate the computer and re-arrange the file system with absolute power, potentially even erasing the entire disk by typing exactly the right (or wrong) ten characters — “rm –rf /*<enter>” — into the old-school interface, the “command line.” Forget children’s programming toys like Scratch. Real programmers run their computer with a keyboard and shell-script. They prototype in Python. They program in C. And they compile by hand.

A laptop running Linux is all a budding programmer ever ought to need. And the safest home computer around.


About the Author

Dr. William Softky is a biophysicist who was among the first neuroscientists to understand microtiming, and among the first technologists to build that understanding into algorithms. Learn more here.

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This blog is series produced by our Screens in Schools work group.

Screens in Schools is a work group of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, which brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events at www.screentimenetwork.org