Wednesday, October 24, 2012

1:1 Laptops: Should We, or Shouldn't We?

In Iowa there are approximately 350 school districts. Of those, roughly 120 have decided to implement a laptop computer initiative (coined the 1:1) with either part of [or all of] their student body. Each year, the number of school districts making this investment continues to grow, with another 40 school districts expected to 'go' next year. Many will tell you this is the greatest reform in education since the pencil and paper--and this tool will completely revolutionize education. As more and more school districts begin to embrace this new paradigm of learning, the pressures for school districts to make this investment increases. I have always been an advocate of 21st Century Learning and believe that having computer access is critical for our learners. But is it the right time for the Hudson Community School District to take the plunge?

Yes, we are having very serious conversations about whether or not to 'take the plunge'. But, my point from the beginning of these conversations has been the same. We need to make sure that if/when we do this, it is for the right reasons. If we do this because the school district to the east or west of us is; well that would be the wrong reason. If we do this because of external pressures from constituents, that would be the wrong reason. So our deliberations are careful, thoughtful, and hopefully broad ranging. To speak metaphorically, if we do this for the wrong reason, we may end up with a 'boat in the driveway we don't want' or a 'pacifier that is way too expensive'.

The monetary investment is certainly worth considering. We are not talking about buying computers for our students and then being set for life. This is an investment into perpetuity. How old is the computer that you have at home? I would guess that if it is older than four years it probably doesn't have the memory or RAM needed to make it work with the latest and greatest software. Many modern websites probably don't work very will either. Our plan must consider how we are going to refresh the fleet to make sure we have modern machines that work without fail for the students. To provide laptop computers for just 9-12 grade students is a recurring cost somewhere in the vicinity of $120,000 annually.

Another consideration is teacher training. Believe me, if we purchase computers for the students and then just turn the teachers loose, this will not be a successful venture. In school districts where this has failed it has been because there was not a concerted effort change the paradigm from which the teachers are operating. A comprehensive professional development program will most certainly be a necessity for the successful implementation of an initiative such as this.

Considering everything that has been mentioned this may seem like an insurmountable task, one not worthy of further deliberation. I don't believe that to be true. The fact is, I believe the reasons we would do this are noble and not based on some faulty assumption that it will cause our enrollment to grow. I believe that it will be expensive--but at the same time I believe it is an investment worth making. Teacher training will absolutely be critical, and I can assure you will be a component in which we will not cut corners.

So then, why?

Let's consider first what may be at stake if we don't. Schools are very different from when you and I attended. Not only are we teaching students how to read, write, and do math, but we are also giving them a strong background in science, technology, 21st Century Learning. When you and I grew up, we didn't have the world at our fingertips--students of today have that advantage. We are teaching them how to live, interact, and work in a global marketplace. Consider this: Our Board of Directors can now hold a board meeting with members located around the world. And not only can we do this--we have done this. It almost sounds cliche, but we are training young people for jobs that didn't exist ten years ago. Did you know that you can go to UNI and major in Global Supply Chain Management? A job like that certainly didn't exist ten years ago, let alone when you and I were in school.

Granted, the advent of 1:1 computer initiatives in schools is a relatively new phenomenon, and such the research is somewhat incomplete. However, the research that exists is compelling. As one example, the state of Maine has had a comprehensive 1:1 program longer than anyone in the nation. They have found that students have seen significant improvement in statewide writing scores. Other studies suggest that students involved in 1:1 computing score higher on problem solving. How about reading and literacy skills? Indeed, studies show increases in reading skills. Our own empirical research into the benefits of using computer based instruction with kindergarten students shows a correlation in reading scores and the utilization of the Reading Eggs program.

There are additional benefits as well. Student engagement has been shown in increase, behavior is better, student motivation increases, and teacher practices change.

More research needs to be done, but the evidence thus far is that this is a solution that works. The question that remains: Is this right for us? We are trying to figure that out right now. I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Help us to make the right decision for our students. There are a couple of ways you can share your thought. First, I would encourage you to take our needs assessment survey, which you can find right here. Or, you can respond with your comments to this blog post.

I am looking forward to hearing from you.

"What does the Research Say About School One-To-One Computing Initiatives", by Nick Sauers and Scott McLeod. CASTLE brief, 2012.


  1. 1:1 laptop programs have been around since 1989; I don't think I would classify that as relatively new. The Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) project starting around the mid-80's was the first ubiquitous access program as students had computers in the class and at home.

    The research isn't so much incomplete as off base. Much of the original research looked at how students performed on standardized tests and the goal was to see if computers improved student performance. Why would they when teachers continued to teach as they always had, with the only difference being the laptops in student's hands? It's remarkable that under those circumstances the needle even moved. Even the ACOT project morphed from student learning into a professional development project.

    You have several questions to ask yourself and your faculty:

    1. In your core purpose of "Creating Effective Learning Environments that Result in Success for ALL Students", what does "success" mean? If success only means continued good scores on standardized tests and admission to college, there's no need to change teaching. I'm pretty sure most teachers aspire to more.

    2. What is a teacher's responsibility to keep up with changes in the profession? You can't pick up any professional publication today that doesn't have numerous references to meaningful ideas and lessons that make use of today's tools.

    3. Most teachers are parents. When their child is ill and they finally realize they need to go to the pediatrician, which one do they go to? The one who graduated in 1980 and still uses methods and technology from 1980? Or the one who graduated in 1980 and has kept up with improved treatments, improved equipment, and mutating diseases.

    As a final thought, read Lisa Nielsen's post about BYOD ( ponder one of her lines, "Schools can no longer be the last place to catch up to the present."

    1. Derrel, thank you for responding. It is pretty evident to me that success is not measured by how well a student does on standardized tests. Our goals as educators must be to move beyond fill in the bubble tests that measure nothing more than recall information, or ask questions that we can get the answer to from Google in mere seconds. Unfortunately it is taking a long time for many in this era of No Child Left Behind to see this realization. Success should be measured by a young persons ability to thrive in a global society. One in which collaboration can take place virtually with anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Success should be measured by a young persons ability to utilize critical thinking skills to solve problems that we don't even know exit yet. Finally, success is measured by a persons ability to be a successful contributor to society. The problem, none of these things can be measured until well into the future.

      I couldn't agree more with your second and third statement about a teachers's responsibility to keep up with the changes in the profession. Indeed neither of us have ever heard a student say they couldn't use technology until they have had an adequate amount of professional development. Indeed most people would much rather go to a doctor that keeps up with improved treatments!

      I am curious, are you an advocate of BYOD, and if so why is that an appropriate solution?

  2. I have implemented a BYOD (as BYOL - laptops only as iPads just don't have the oomph) project in middle school, and wrote about it a while back The school now uses BYOD in grades 6-12. Even in an independent school we had to address equity issues, which we did.

    BYOD is, unfortunately, a term that can cover anything from an old feature phone to the latest power gaming laptop - very different capabilities. I distinguish between the two

    Why it is an appropriate solution, and the caveats, can go on for pages. However, at the low end, students should be allowed to use in school the same tools they use for learning (in the life sense, not the sit-in-a-classroom sense) outside of school. Those are the tools students use in life and in school the can harness the power of their own devices and learn how to use them appropriately in formal settings. Some teachers have to see this in action to have the light go on. Forsyth County Schools in Georgia is a prime example of this setting, where students who have two or three devices will loan one to another student in the class.

    At the high end, where you ask students to bring their own laptops, depending on your community you may find that with the laptops you already have, you can be 1:1 in any class that desires it. Forest Hills in Ohio is using this approach.

    But the real key is that students having multiple different devices frees the teacher from having to "teach" the device or the software ("click here, now click here"), and it forces students to do what they really will be doing in the future to learn new technology - work with each other. The teacher has to know capabilities, but not individual devices, so it frees the teacher from being the tech expert in the room - "I don't know, ask someone" is an acceptable response when a student asks how to get his or her device to do something. And it also provides for natural differentiation when using powerful devices. Suddenly, it's easier to allow students to create different products for the same assignment. It allows teachers and students to stay at the forefront of technology as somebody will always have the latest and greatest, so it raises the game for all. When used effectively, work moves to the cloud and collaboration increases.

    This doesn't happen all at once and teachers who crave control and being in complete charge will find it very difficult. Teachers who believe in their students will find it liberating.