The board of Florida’s Miami-Dade County school district on Wednesday unanimously approved a $63 million plan to lease as many as 150,000 digital computing devices for students, part of a far-reaching effort to upgrade the 354,000-student system’s technological capabilities.
The goal is to ensure that by 2015, all Miami-Dade students have access to a laptop or tablet—and that the new devices are all connected to digital curricular content and a high-powered new technology infrastructure.
“I think this will be revolutionary,” said Perla Tabares Hantman, the board’s chair, after the vote.
The first batch of newly leased devices could be distributed to students as soon as October. But Miami-Dade officials have yet to decide what type of computing device they will give to students or what company will provide those tools.
Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho told Education Week that the district is in “aggressive conversations” with “the most prominent developers and manufacturers” to either lease devices directly or to have a new device developed specifically for use in Miami-Dade schools.
In his proposal to the board, Carvalho said the 1:1 initiative, one of the largest in the nation to date, will help “eradicate the digital deserts in our community.”
“If you care about pursuing equity and opportunity for all students, you have to guarantee universal digital rights for all children,” Carvalho said in an interview. “If it can be done in Miami-Dade, it is replicable for every school system in America.”
Miami-Dade currently allows students to bring their own computers, tablets, and smartphones into the classroom. But Carvalho said 73 percent of Miami-Dade’s students are poor, and a survey conducted by the district found that just 25 percent of students currently own a device capable of meeting the district’s specifications.
Any devices procured by the district, Carvalho said, will have adequately sized screens, be enabled to run digital curricular content, and be able to connect to a keyboard.
The new devices would be paid for primarily through a loan from Banc of America Public Capital Corp., to be repaid over five years at a cost of roughly $12 million per year.
Carvalho said that new devices for students are just one part of Miami-Dade’s comprehensive “digital convergence plan.”
In recent years, the district also has leveraged $7 million in private funds to obtain $70 million in federal dollars to promote universal wireless connectivity in its schools, a goal that is now nearly complete. The district also received $32 million in federal Race to the Top funds, and Miami-Dade voters approved last November a $1.2 billion bond, $100 million of which was earmarked for new technology for schools.
Among other things, that money will go to purchase projection and sound amplification systems and digital smartboards that will interact with the student devices, allowing for instant quizzing and student feedback, Carvalho said.
Officials also plan to upgrade schools’ network bandwidth from 1 gigabit per second to 10 gigabits per second, part of an effort to ensure that schools are ready to meet a bevy of new state requirements.
Under Florida law, all school districts in the state will be required to spend at least 50 percent of their allocations for instructional materials on digital materials by 2015-16. Students are also required to take at least one online course before graduation. In addition, Florida has adopted the Common Core State Standards, and will be expected to begin giving online assessments linked to those academic standards in the 2014-15 school year.
But “We’re not doing this because of a state dictate” or any other requirement, said Carvalho. “We are doing this because my fundamental belief is that in a hyper-connected society, the digitally disconnected are at a lifelong educational and economic disadvantage.”
Wednesday’s vote comes on the heels of a recent vote by the Los Angeles Unified school board to award a $30 million contract to Apple, Inc. to provide iPad tablets to students in 47 schools, the first phase in a larger plan to eventually provide computing devices to all of the district’s 660,000 students.
The Miami-Dade plan also follows a recent report from the Center for American Progress questioning whether states are getting a good return on such education technology investments and saying that poor and minority students are disproportionately asked to use technology to drill on basic skills rather than engage in more complex tasks.
Carvalho said that a needs assessment conducted in Miami-Dade found evidence of that sort of ineffective use of technology in the past, but he said the current effort will be different.
“To me it is insane that any system would invest in technology and then use only 10 percent of its full capacity,” he said. “When managed effectively, [technology] brings the world alive.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.