The Miami-Dade County, Fla., school district was preparing for an ambitious 1-to-1 computing initiative, confident it would transform learning. But then it put the brakes on, slowing down the rollout and narrowing its focus.
“We were about ready to make a device selection, and I pushed a pause button,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of the 354,000-student district, the fourth largest in the country. “I wanted to observe and study what went wrong [in other districts] and why.”
After a three-month review and conversations with school officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere, Miami-Dade announced in January 2014 it was ready to progress. This school year marks the first wave of the district’s much-anticipated 1-to-1 initiative that seeks to transform student learning—and achieve equity through digital access.
It started this fall when incoming 9th graders were issued HP tablets instead of textbooks for use in school, specifically during history classes and also at home. Seventh graders were also given devices but for use in-school only, during civics classes. So far, 50,000 tablets and laptops have been distributed to students and teachers. That number is expected to double by next school year, when 10th grade will be added, and the devices will also be used in English language arts classes.
The more cautious approach to 1-to-1 computing efforts came from studying the successes and mistakes of others.
What Went Wrong
In fall 2013, districts across the country were running into trouble implementing ambitious 1-to-1 computing initiatives:
• A plan to provide iPads to the 651,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District was halted after the first phase, when concerns arose over the readiness and price of preloaded curriculum purchased along with the devices. The district has since formed a committee to recommend what to do next.
• In North Carolina, the 72,500-student Guilford County district recalled thousands of tablets, handed out only months earlier, citing hardware problems from broken screens to overheated battery chargers. After renegotiating its contract, the district re-launched the initiative this school year and distributed 18,000 new tablets.
• And in Texas, the 70,000-student Fort Bend Independent School District abandoned a plan to deliver an interactive science curriculum via iPads after 19 months of problems, including spotty wireless coverage and digital lessons not aligned to standards. The initiative remains shelved.
Miami-Dade’s superintendent did not want his district to face similar problems.
“We studied everyone else’s mistakes, and I think we are better for it,” Mr. Carvalho said, explaining that school officials learned from the “expedited way in which other districts acted” and decided not to roll out everything at once.
“We have been launching it in waves, specifically for the availability of digital content,” he said, referring to the problems Los Angeles faced with its content not being ready in time.
Miami-Dade also decided to start with one subject area: world history, said Sylvia J. Diaz, the district’s assistant superintendent in charge of instructional technology.
With history, there was plenty of digital material available to purchase, Ms. Diaz said, and supplementary content was available, including open-source materials.
Starting with one subject area allowed the district to better focus its teacher training, she said.
Still, Ms. Diaz acknowledged that the school system didn’t get as much teacher participation in workshops as expected, since teachers were being asked to attend on their own time.
“We’re trying to correct that,” she said. “This summer, our plan is to offer a stipend to teachers in addition to continuing education credits.”
Judy Burton, a former associate superintendent for LAUSD now chairing a committee tasked with examining the Los Angeles district’s way forward in 1-to-1 computing, said having a clear vision and effective teacher training is critical.
“It’s not about the devices,” she said. “We could have a device in the hand of every student as we speak, but that does not mean that you have succeeded in introducing integrated learning in the classroom.”
Teachers need a clear instructional strategy for device use to personalize and differentiate learning, she said.
“That is our primary focus right now,” she said. “It’s a key shift from when the first initiative rolled out.”
Looking back on this school year, Mr. Carvalho said challenges and unexpected problems have certainly arisen, from forgotten passwords to low bandwidth in certain areas of schools, to the need for more teacher training.
“We’ve been able to work through those,” he said. “These are absolutely manageable challenges.”
The upside, for Mr. Carvalho, has been seeing students who previously had no access to technology not only using the devices to learn but also being able to take them home, thanks to wireless cards.
“This has now become a window of exploration not only for the student, but for the whole family,” he said. “We took a huge risk that has turned into a huge reward.”