Adding a digital device to the classroom without a fundamental change in the culture of teaching and learning will not lead to significant improvement.

Perhaps it was the driving rain and the dark grey clouds of an approaching storm that contributed to the superintendent’s choice of words. He had spent the past month reviewing one-to-one computing programs in various school districts as he tried to decide whether his own district should commit to the enormous expense of a one-to-one program at a time of declining resources. His conclusion from his visits did not leave much room for interpretation.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible implementation from every program I visited,” he said. “All of them were about the stuff, with a total lack of vision.” His research convinced him not to move forward with one-to-one computing.

With this absolute conclusion that one-to-one computing can lead to a waste of precious resources—including dollars and time—hanging in the air, he then asked me my thoughts on the issue. My response, based on observing the implementation of one-to-one computing programs all over the world, was just as unequivocal: “Yes. Unfortunately, too often I concur.”

As many schools and districts are now rushing to buy every student a digital device, I’m concerned that most one-to-one implementation strategies are based on the new tool as the focus of the program. Unless we break out of this limited vision that one-to-one computing is about the device, we are doomed to waste our resources.

The observation of failure is not limited to this superintendent or to me. I have heard some colorful names that describe the sad reality of such a wasted opportunity. While I tend to refer to these initiatives as “$1,000 pencil” programs, or paper shoved down the wire, a Welsh school head quips that they are nothing more than “shiny new spaceships.” Even a corporate high-tech executive observes that too many schools are in “spray and pray” mode with one-to-one computing: “Spray” on the technology, and then “pray” that you get an increase in learning.

In every case of failure I have observed, the one-to-one computing plan puts enormous focus on the device itself, the enhancement of the network, and training teachers to use the technology. Then, teachers are instructed to go! But go where? That’s the critical question that must be addressed first.

(Next page: A simple proposition—and how leadership training needs to change)