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Education Funding

Mobile Learning Costs Add Up

By Katie Ash — March 16, 2010 8 min read
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One of the most oft-cited reasons for embracing mobile technologies in education is their low cost compared with that of other equipment, such as personal computers.

But at a time when many schools are battling significant holes in state budgets and facing staff layoffs, how realistic is it for schools to be investing in mobile technologies?

The cost of a successful mobile-technology initiative goes far beyond just the cost of the devices, which include iPods or MP3 players, cellphones and smartphones, personal digital assistants, larger devices such as laptops and netbooks, and a host of other gadgets that are easily portable. In fact, experts warn, the greatest expenses often come from the resources needed to support the technology.

“The biggest cost that we’ve seen is really around policy,” says David Metcalf, the senior researcher and director of the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training. “The amount of time that it takes to get this integrated into the curriculum and to train the teachers—that takes time, and time translates into money somewhere, and a lot of people forget about that.”

Providing professional development for teachers to help them become comfortable with the devices, as well as training on how to integrate mobile learning effectively into classrooms, is critical to a program’s success, experts on educational technology say.

“If you’re really going to use the technology to its fullest, you have to change the mind-set of the curriculum,” says Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan, “and there’s a cost to transforming the curriculum.”

The Price of Wireless

Educators should also consider the cost of equipping the mobile devices with educational software to help students learn, says Soloway.

And, of course, schools can expect to sink a large chunk of money into the network infrastructure to support mobile learning.

“There’s no organization on earth that packs people more densely than a school, and if you’re going to build a [wireless] system for that dense a population, you can’t buy a [standard] router,” Soloway says. “You need a $500 professional-grade access point” for many access points within a school. Wireless access points allow wireless devices to connect to the network, and the more devices attempting to connect to the network, the more access points are needed.

Each school should expect to spend from $75,000 to $125,000 on a wireless-network infrastructure, Soloway says, as well as an extra staff person to maintain the network.

In addition, to maintain a high-quality learning network, it will need to be updated every two or three years, he says, which varies in cost, but can be thousands of additional dollars.

Even in higher education, where the use of mobile devices for learning has taken off at a much faster rate than in K-12, colleges and universities that have already implemented mobile-learning initiatives find it hard to tally the total cost, says George Saltsman, the director of technology for the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at Abilene Christian University, in Texas, which gave out iPhones or iPod touches to each of its incoming freshmen starting in 2008.

The direct costs of the program, he says, include the price of the device, which is expected to last for two years, so there is funding allocated for each student to have two devices throughout his or her college career (students are responsible for paying for their own monthly cellular plans); about $700,000 to expand and upgrade the wireless network to support the devices; $21,000 for training and development for faculty members; $50,000 for a podcast server so professors can turn lectures into podcasts; and $40,000 to remodel a student-support center for the project. But he says it’s difficult to estimate the indirect costs, which include faculty time, software-developer time, and redeployment of faculty members to support the initiative.

Stimulus Dollars at Work

Precollegiate schools may find the money to support mobile learning in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus law. That is how Brent Myers, the superintendent of the 1,015-student Jim Ned Consolidated Independent School District in Tuscola, Texas, managed to supply each of the high school students at Jim Ned High School with iPod touches, which cost from $200 to $400 each depending on the hard-drive size.

The district also used federal stimulus money to beef up its wireless network to support the devices.

Schools may also be able to find funding by applying for grants and teaming up with local businesses that agree to “adopt” a classroom or a school, says Cathleen A. Norris, a professor of learning technologies at the University of North Texas and the chief education architect for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company GoKnow, which provides educational technology, software, and curricula to schools.

“Schools are being very creative,” she says, in finding ways to pay for mobile-learning projects.

One way to offset the high cost of a network, says Norris, is by purchasing cellphones, which run off the telecommunications network of a company like Verizon, relieving the strain of building and maintaining an in-house wireless network for the school.

Cost Range of Mobile Devices

Basic MP3 player:

Peronal Digital Assistant:

iPod Touch:




Source: Education Week

In that case, “[schools] don’t have to put in the infrastructure. They don’t have to spend the upfront money. They don’t have to hire somebody to maintain [the network] or worry about updating it,” Norris says. “They lay that burden on the companies whose job it is to work on networks.”

That alternative, says Kyle Menchhofer, the director of technology for the 2,150-student St. Marys city school system in St. Marys, Ohio, is part of what has made it possible for his district to equip six classes of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders with smartphones.

“If I were to add 565 devices and put it on our network, we’re looking at a huge cost just for the access points themselves, and paying for a network administrator to manage the network,” he says. But by going with smartphones, the school has transferred that cost to Verizon.

The cost for broadband service for each device is about $35 a month, which adds up to $178,000 a year for all the devices, says Menchhofer, who expects that price to drop as the program expands.

“It’s more doable because you don’t have to have all that money upfront,” he says. Under the partnership with Verizon, the company has agreed to provide the devices themselves for free, and the district receives new devices each year, “so you don’t have that inventory of computers that are going to be around that you have to constantly worry about maintaining,” he says.

Smartphones typically cost about $150 to $300 each, so getting the devices for free saved Menchhofer’s district around $60,000.

In addition, the district purchases a $30 software license per device per year for the students.

Tapping the E-Rate

A large portion of the funding needed for the mobile-learning initiative in the St. Marys district comes from the federal E-rate program, says Menchhofer, and the district has also used stimulus money to pay for some of the professional development, the software licenses, and the broadband service.

Lenny J. Schad, the chief information officer of the 58,000-student Katy Independent School District in Texas, has also explored partnerships with telecommunications companies to bring mobile learning into his district.

A pilot program there has put smartphones, with both the texting and phone components turned off, into the hands of every 5th grader in the district.

“It’s a great way to get school districts of our size very close to the one-to-one initiative,” Schad says, referring to the goal of having a computing device in the hands of every student.

But the prices still have to come down some more before it’s realistic for most schools, he says.

“The pricing structure is really out of whack to roll it out on a big scale. You’re talking in the $35- to $50-per-month range,” he says. “That’s not going to be affordable.”

If schools and telecommunications companies could work together to bring that rate down to about $12 per month, more schools could buy in to mobile learning, says Schad. “If it changes, [mobile devices] could become affordable. If not, I don’t think you’ll see school districts rolling them out in high numbers.”To make those changes, districts need to band together in consortia to help encourage affordable prices for education, he says.

In the meantime, Schad is working to build a public wireless-Internet infrastructure on all campuses in his district so students can bring in their own Internet-enabled devices.

Student-Owned Devices

Allowing students to bring their own devices to use in school can spark equity debates, but some district leaders say it’s a low-cost way to tap in to the technology that’s already widely available to students.

For instance, in the 67,000-student Pasco County school system in Land O’ Lakes, Fla., officials at Wiregrass Ranch High School have a recent history of letting students use their own mobile devices, says Samuel V. Parisi, the school’s technology coordinator.

Two years ago, the school allowed students to register their laptops, which they were then allowed to use in classrooms for learning. Since then, the school has also allowed students to register cellphones that are then permitted to be used in class for educational purposes.

“Last year, we had 400 referrals for [students having cellphones in class],” says Parisi. “And we started asking ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ”

Instead, the school changed direction from punishing students for having cellphones in class to encouraging them to use them for learning, and the school recently launched an initiative to allow students to use iPod touches. A group of teachers has been trained to integrate the devices into classrooms, and those students who register their devices will have the opportunity to sit through short classes that will introduce them to educational applications for the device, says Parisi.

“What we have done at this school is replicable anywhere,” he says. Rather than looking at the school as the hardware provider in every situation, he says, Wiregrass Ranch High also sees itself as a provider of a service.

“We want to create an environment,” says Parisi, “that really mirrors the real world that we live in.”


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