Two of my grandsons attend a large school district in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The area is generally wealthy, and the schools are well maintained. But judging from my visits to their schools, education technology has never been a district priority.
So when I heard that the district's school board adopted an ambitious 1:1 initiative this year, I was excited. At the cost of $20 million dollars, this 27,500-student district will provide laptops for all high schoolers and tablets for all middle and elementary school students.
Although I am firmly in favor of students using and accessing technology (I am a tech director, after all), I'm also aware that 1:1 programs can be either a highly effective means of improving teaching and learning1
or a disastrous waste of money. Just look at the problem-plagued rollout of student devices by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2013, which has resulted in a flood of bad publicity.2
The devil is in the details.
A few of those details about the program in my grandsons' district were shared in a letter from the superintendent and in a local newspaper article. With only these two sources of information on which to base my reaction, I believe the program looks good. To quote the superintendent, "This technology offers tremendous opportunities to personalize learning for students and to encourage collaboration with a project-based focus. It is clear that today's students need to know how to access information and also understand and apply the information." Personalization, collaboration, project-based learning, and information literacy—all education goals near and dear to most educators' hearts.
Although I suspect that a great deal of planning has gone into this initiative already, here are 10 important questions that parents should ask—and that school administrators should be able to answer.
- What are the initiative's teaching and learning goals, and how will those goals be measured? Too many technology initiatives start with the technology, not the instructional goals. Clearly defined objectives should drive the choice of device being used. For example, if schools want students to read e-books, the screens and applications should support this use. In the planning stages of the project, the district should also determine how it will measure progress toward its stated goals, so that it will be able to answer the question, "What have we received for our money, time, and effort?"
- What training is in place for the teaching staff? Professional development is key to the success of any 1:1 initiative. The major shortcomings of most 1:1 professional development efforts are that they offer too little, too late—and focus too much on the device instead of on the pedagogy required for its effective use.
- Is there a digital citizenship curriculum in place? Of utmost importance to many parents is their children's online safety. Schools can address this need by having a good plan in place to help students learn to use technology appropriately. Supplement the plan with a parent education program that includes guidelines—written in clear, understandable, and positive language—for when devices can be used in school, what applications and websites are appropriate, and how users must care for the equipment. (Our district's guidelines can be found on our 1:1 parent site. Like many districts, we have borrowed extensively from Common Sense Media.)
- What happens if a student breaks or loses the device? Clear procedures related to loss, damage, and theft of school-owned devices need to be in place. My own district, like many, offers parents a low-cost insurance plan that covers accidental damage. We also place mandatory, heavy-duty cases on student devices, dramatically improving their survivability.
- How will these devices be managed and maintained? Unreliable technology is frustrating for both staff and students—and apt to go unused. The 1:1 plan should address the staffing and management systems necessary to troubleshoot hardware, update software, and install applications on student devices.
- What e-resources will accompany the hardware? Individualized instruction requires such resources as e-books and content databases, a course management system like Moodle or Blackboard, and software that enables students to access and process information. Cloud-based productivity and collaboration tools like GoogleApps or Office365 can support workflows and communication between teacher and students.
- Is the network infrastructure in place to support the use of the devices, both internally and in the cloud? Although many schools have spent a good deal of time and effort in extending the reach of their wireless networks to all instructional areas of a school (coverage), they may not have the bandwidth needed to support dozens of devices trying to use the network at the same time (capacity).
- How will you ensure that all teachers use the devices to improve teaching and learning? Few of us like top-down mandates, so it's important that the teachers who are expected to implement this program have input during the planning process on goals, training, resources, and policies. Assessment of effective teaching using technology should be embedded in teacher evaluation practices.
- What will happen in a few years when all these devices are obsolete? The plan should be specific about the project's long-term viability. Using one-time referendum dollars that will be repaid over 20 or 30 years to buy equipment that will need to be replaced in five years is like taking out a mortgage to purchase a car. A transparent budget for the project must clearly state both annual costs and long-term maintenance and replacement needs.
- Are other areas of the school's budget being cut to pay for this project? If the 1:1 initiative is being funded by general operating dollars, school leaders should be up-front about its potential impact on other programs. Given the zero-sum nature of most school budgets, somebody's priority program or resource may get reduced—and that somebody may not like it. If dollars are coming from places that will require less funding because of the initiative—such as textbooks, printing, or school supplies—the district needs to demonstrate these savings.
For the sake of my grandsons and their classmates, I hope their district's 1:1 initiative goes well. And if thoughtful planning has been done and all school leaders have good answers to the honest questions of parents and the community, it will.
Making It Happen
What School and District Leaders Can Do
- Start with clearly articulated education goals when considering a 1:1 initiative.
- Have an assessment plan clearly in mind as the design takes shape.
- Involve teachers, parents, and students in conversations during the planning.
- State clearly whether this is a pilot project with a defined end date or a continuing plan with ongoing funding.
- Provide online resources, hold parent information meetings, and communicate early and often about the project.
- Make sure the budget is transparent and covers not just implementation but also maintenance.
Sauers, N., & McLeod, S. (2011). What does the research say about school one-to-one computing initiatives? Lexington: UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, University of Kentucky.
Klein, K. (2014, February 12). As the tab for L.A. Unified's iPads grows, so does the confusion. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-lausd-ipad-20140211,0,1533837.story#axzz2tPAeAg5o
Doug Johnson is director of media and technology at Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato, Minnesota. He is the author of The Classroom Teacher's Technology Survival Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2012). He blogs at the Blue Skunk Blog.
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