Miami-Dade Pauses 1-to-1 Computing Initiative, Considers Big Changes

By Benjamin Herold — November 27, 2013 4 min read
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Florida’s Miami-Dade County school district said it has “pushed the pause button” on one of the country’s largest 1-to-1 digital computing initiatives, citing concerns about the troubled implementation of such programs in Los Angeles, Guilford County, N.C., and elsewhere.

In addition to delaying the deployment of new devices, which had been expected to begin last month, the 354,000-student district is now rethinking its earlier preference for tablet computers and is reconsidering its original plan to give students their own devices.

“This is about being prudent, pragmatic, and cautious,” said Sylvia J. Diaz, the district’s deputy superintendent for innovation and school choice. “It’s not that we don’t want to give kids the tools they need to be successful, but we want to do it in a way that is not going to be disruptive or wasteful.”

In June, Miami-Dade’s school board unanimously approved a plan to borrow $63 million and lease as many as 150,000 devices, with the goal of ensuring that all of the district’s students have access to a laptop or tablet and digital content by 2015. Miami-Dade also allows students to bring their own computing devices to school.

Diaz said an announcement about the future direction of the initiative could come “in the next few weeks.”

Problems Elsewhere

Diaz said that a team of Miami-Dade officials representing the district’s information technology and curriculum departments has been closely watching other 1-to-1 deployments around the country—and growing increasingly worried.

She described the Los Angeles Unified School District’s high-profile plan to provide 660,000 iPads to students and staff members as a source of particular concern, pointing to confusion among many parents as to what their responsibility and liability is for their children’s tablets; the rising cost projections associated with the initiative; concerns about a lack of adequate teacher training; problems with students bypassing the devices’ security filters; and concerns about the readiness and quality of the digital curricular content that Los Angeles is purchasing as part of its plan.

One specific piece of the Los Angeles plan that gave Miami-Dade officials particular pause, Diaz said, was the district’s failure to include keyboards as part of its initial half-billion dollar purchasing plan.

“It’s just that whole issue of, ‘What haven’t we thought about?’” Diaz said.

The recent announcement by the 73,000-student Guilford County, N.C., school system that it was suspending its tablet computing initiative also struck a nerve. There, district officials suspended the country’s largest deployment of Amplify tablets after extensive problems with broken screens and overheating battery chargers.

“The fact that they had 1,500 broken tablets after having them in circulation for [only a few] weeks was a huge red flag for me,” said Diaz, who added that Miami-Dade was not considering Amplify as a potential vendor.

Open Questions

As a result, Miami-Dade officials have been recalibrating their plans, and the initiative that rolls out could look very different than initially described.

For starters, Diaz indicated that the district’s initial enthusiasm for tablet computing devices has cooled considerably, and the overall number of devices that are purchased or leased could end up being less than originally planned.

It also appears unlikely that students will be given their own computing devices or be allowed to take those devices home, at least at first.

“As opposed to having a take-home model in the first phase, we [are considering] a classroom model,” Diaz said. “We think we might be better off with classroom sets [of devices], giving kids the opportunity to use them in school and giving teachers more opportunities to learn how to use them in a controlled setting.”

“It takes folks a while to learn how to manage the devices in the classroom,” Diaz said.

And Miami-Dade is also re-evaluating its plans for providing digital content on the new devices.

The district’s plan still calls for an initial focus on world history and civics, with the foundational instructional material being a new digital curriculum from publishing giant McGraw-Hill and supplements drawn from both other providers and open-source offerings.

But Diaz said the concerns about the new software from educational publisher Pearson purchased by LAUSD—which is being rolled out despite not being finished, has an undetermined price tag, and will expire after three years—helped prompt a re-evaluation.

“We’re still looking at deploying devices that have content preloaded on them,” Diaz said, but the questions elsewhere “did make us go back and say, ‘What about the software?’”

No formal procurement process has been initiated, she said, and the focus of any changes would be on adding to the McGraw-Hill materials that Miami-Dade has already purchased.

Next Steps

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is expected to provide more information sometime before the new year. No final decisions have yet been made, Diaz said.

As for the challenge of pausing and redirecting such a massive initiative after it had already been launched?

“The challenge is that there were expectations,” Diaz said. “But these initiatives are complex. We want to do it in a way that’s not going to result in a whole lot of challenges for kids and teachers [over] things we’re not ready to handle.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.