IT Infrastructure

Schools Seek the Right Mix of Digital Computing Devices

By Michelle R. Davis — October 17, 2011 6 min read
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Students in the 1-to-1 computing program in California’s Saugus Union School District are using netbooks in their classes every day, but the 2-year old program is constantly adjusting the roster of computing devices it uses. The K-6 district is now starting to incorporate tablets into its offerings and is considering a plan to allow parents to purchase upgraded netbooks for their children.

While students in grades 4-6 currently use school-purchased netbooks they store at school each night, younger students are now sharing iPads and Nook Color tablets, also purchased by the school district. And the district is in the process of piloting a program to allow parents to buy upgraded netbooks for their children, which they would take home at night and would receive an operating system and software through the school.

“We aren’t really locked in on a standard device,” says Jim Klein, the director of information services and technology for the 11,000-student district in Santa Clarita Valley, Calif. “We want to have a mix of devices at different levels depending on usage patterns.”

Klein says he doesn’t believe this poses an equity issue for students whose parents choose not to purchase an upgraded device, since all students will have access to a computer at school and assignments will not require home usage. “By providing all the software and a consistent environment (in school), our strategy is actually far more fair and equal than any other” bring-your-own-technology program, he says. “If students are bringing whatever they want, schools actually promote an environment of haves and have nots and leave themselves open to all sorts of problems with equity ... In such an environment, teachers are always forced into crippling limitations and workarounds to accommodate the least capable device in the room.”

Saugus Union School District

Santa Clarita Valley, California
11,000 students

3,000 desktops

500 laptops

2,500 netbooks

25 iPads

7 nooks

While many of the more than 1,500 public schools the nonprofit One-to-One Institute estimates have such initiatives, they typically use one type of device. As programs expand to more elementary and middle school students and cloud computing storage becomes more widely available, experts expect the single-device approach to change.

“Most school districts don’t have any real vision for their technology, other than saying, ‘This is cool, I’m going to buy a bunch of it,’ ” Klein says. “If you start thinking about what you actually value about it, then it’s much more big-picture.”

‘Mix and Match’ Issues

But having just one type of technology in a 1-to-1 initiative can make life easier and even enhance a program, says Jeff Mao, the learning technology policy director for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which provides laptop computers to the state’s middle and high school students.

The Maine program uses Mac laptops and sticks with one product because of the scale of the initiative: The program has about 72,000 of the devices spread across the state.

Using one type of device gives the state purchasing power to whittle down prices, since it buys in bulk. It also allows district and school technology personnel to become experts at troubleshooting and repairs.

“If you have a singular [device], it’s going to be easier to support, and you’re more likely to see adoption and buy-in among educators,” Mao says, adding that if the devices aren’t working well, teachers are less likely to use them. “The more you mix and match, the harder that job becomes.”

Even so, Mao says Maine will be putting out new bids for devices for the 2012-13 school year, and he’s not wedded to any particular product. If something else fits the need, he says, he’ll consider switching. In addition, if the program evolves to include elementary-school-age students, that also could mean using a variety of devices.

“What our older students need from a device is much different from what a student in grades K, 1, 2, or 3 might need,” he says. “That’s one of the things that could drive a difference in devices.”

In addition, as cloud computing, which permits schools to store data and applications “on the cloud” or in data centers they can access over the Internet, becomes more popular and storage is not limited, 1-to-1 initiatives will be less about the device and more about what the device can do, says Nick J. Sauers, the leadership-training coordinator for the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education. The center is based at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.

Leslie A. Wilson, the chief executive officer of the One-to-One Institute, a Mason, Mich.-based organization that works with countries, states, and school districts on 1-to-1 initiatives, says she agrees that education leaders must think about the outcomes they want.

“We went into a district last week, and they told us they were going to get iPads, and we said, ‘Why?’ ” she says. The answer was that they were cheaper than laptops, and the district could buy more. That reasoning, says Wilson, is the wrong way to view a 1-to-1 initiative.

“The decision on what to purchase should be based on what you want to achieve,” she says. “They hadn’t thought it through.”

Such computing programs also need to adapt over time, Wilson says. Just a year or two ago, tablets weren’t even being considered as devices for schools to use, she says.

Evaluating the Tool

It’s certainly been a story of flexibility and adaptability for the 34,000-student Irving Independent School District in Texas, which launched its 1-to-1 program more than a decade ago.

Irving Independent School District

Irving, Texas
34,000 students

9,489 desktops

9,029 laptops

12,129 netbooks

435 iPads

The district, which now has more than 12,000 netbooks at the high school, middle, and elementary levels combined, started with laptop computers for its students. But after five years, the laptops were far more expensive than the new netbooks hitting the market, says Alice E. Owen, the district’s director of technology.

By replacing a fourth of the devices each year, the Irving district gradually moved away from full-size laptops, and all students in the program now use netbooks.

Over the years, however, Owen experimented with the size of the netbook, starting with a 7-inch, but users found the screen too small to scroll through large documents and the keyboard too cramped for high school hands. Those 7-inch models went to elementary and middle school students, and Owen determined a 10-inch device was optimal.

The netbooks have worked well for what students need to do on a regular basis, Owen says, but high schools still maintain computer labs stocked with PCs and high-end laptops with the capacity to do movie editing or high-end graphics.

Though the Irving schools have had success with netbooks, Owen says she continues to experiment. District administrators got iPads to use for teacher evaluations during the last school year, and school officials are trying to determine whether those devices also have value for students. This school year, the district is piloting iPads with students at its new Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, which uses new technology to operate as a “net zero” school, producing as much energy as it uses.

The Irving 1-to-1 program has even considered using smartphones, but school officials have concluded they are more of a device that consumes information than one that is easily used to create work. Still, the district did revise its cellphone policy this year to allow students in all grades to use smartphones in the classroom if the teacher presents activities in which the devices would be helpful, Owen says.

Sauers, from the University of Kentucky, says it’s important for districts to do small pilot programs with teachers and students with new devices to determine whether they fit the needs of a 1-to-1 program. Those pilots allow districts to create their own “product review” teams, he points out.

Such reviews, he says, can provide information on “why this tool is valuable and the educational impact it can have.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as 1-to-1 Ingredients

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