Beyond ‘one-to-one computing’: Time for a new approach

By Alan November
January 29th, 2013

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)

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12 Responses to “Beyond ‘one-to-one computing’: Time for a new approach”

February 4, 2013

I am in total agreement with this article. I love all my technology and work as a Technology Integration Coordinator. I am creating Professional Development to help teachers learn about the options they have to implement technology in the classroom and it is not about the device, but about the integration of the technology with curriculum in the classroom. Currently I do PLC Professional Development in all buidlings K-12 each month to practice and learn about new tools. I am currently creating a website with the help of the students with tutorials for them to learn about these resources, websites, etc. to help them empower their own technology integration. I am not sure that 1:1 is going to help if the teacher is unsure of what to do with the device and you don’t have a clear goal and purpose. I think we encourage of teachers to design lessons with a learning target and objective for students to hit, but we often don’t do this with technology integration. The target is always moving and not clearly defined.

February 4, 2013

Great article. I agree 100%. I have seen 1 to 1 programs initiated and I always ask myself why would you want to train students to use one device. In our district we have developed a mindset of what is the best device for what I want to do. We have chromebooks, ipads, laptops, desktops, ipods, etc. and we allow students and staff to bring their own devices. We’re not perfect, who is, but we want the technology to be a tool of learning and not a marketing ploy to attract open enrollment students.

The problem seems to be a lack of quality content to engage and challenge the students. One-to-one computing has the most potential of any paradigm around, but without properly structured, functional, and engaging content, the computer becomes, as was stated, a “$1,000 pencil”…


I prefer the word “task” to “assignment” though they are for the most part synonymous. The educator should define a task that shows that the student understands content, and then the educator shows the way to complete the task using technology. The task provides a path to information and a way to assimilate that information into a broader body of knowledge. Technology facilitates both the path to the information and the way to complete the task.

This model of instruction with technology incorporates both inquisitiveness and measurable results.

February 5, 2013

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education” – Albert Einstein

I find it amazing that I have not heard of many teacher-driven initiatives. Teacher’s should be knocking down the doors of the Superintendents and Principals demanding technology so they could create a better classroom experience.

February 5, 2013

we need to have one-to-one computing first in order to access information and then it will evolve into one-to-world on its own. The filters are a problem/hinderance…it was only a few years ago that our district required parent signature for a student to even access the internet. We are so fearful of being out of control in the classroom.

February 5, 2013

I have so many thoughts on this. On one level, the reason so many districts “jump on the 1to1 bandwagon” is that it is easier to buy “stuff” than invest in re-training teachers. After 34 years,I am still puzzled by the fact that we (the education establishment) haven’t learned that the way to engage kids is to tap into their interests and then collaborate with other teachers,including school library media specialists, to create/evaluate/assess meaningful, with lots of reading, writing, and feedback, project-based-learning. In this way, technology becomes a means to an end,not an end in itself. John Dewey must be rolling over in his grave.

    February 14, 2013

    I agree with your statement about John Dewey. I think if John Dewey walked into a 21st century classroom replete with a dozen computer terminals, networking cables, and a television and DVD player, he would probably investigate the new tools and technologies first hand and exclaim “This is incredible!” His initial enthusiasm would not wane quickly. Once shown how to use the technology and once he was trained in the basics of educational tools such word processing programs and the Internet, Dewey would probably cut to the chase and ask how the technologies are implemented in the classroom. Because his vision of education was essentially pragmatic, Dewey would want to clarify that the technological tools were being used to stimulate creative inquiry and critical thinking.
    Dewey favored a teaching style that emphasized the students’ active participation in the classroom. Therefore, he would look favorably on new technology as being tools that students enjoy interacting with and discovering knowledge on their own.
    When Dewey said, “A tool is a particular thing, but it is more than a particular thing, since it is a thing in which a connection, a sequential bond of nature is embodied…Its perception as well as its actual use takes the mind to other things.” he probably did not foresee the implications of his comment on 21st century tools.

    However, John Dewey would roll in his grave if he could see how technology is used and how precious resources are wasted because investing in training isn’t high on school districts priority list nowadays. Sad….

This article articulates a frustration of mine as we begin our journey into one to one computing. As a Tech Coach, I see lots of devices dubbed as the “next big thing” sitting on the shelves of teachers’s classrooms collecting dust. But I’ve learned over the years not to blame the teachers. We give them a shiny new device amidst the roll-out of new curriculum, grading systems, SIS, etc. and then stand back and judge them for not using the device. The fact is, they are overwhelmed. As a coach, my job is not to go in with my own agenda based on district mandates. My job is to meet them where they are on the implementation spectrum, and tailor my professional develpment opportunities to meet their needs. Differentiation isn’t just for kids – it has to be applied to our teachers as well. Thanks, Alan.

February 13, 2013

I absolutely agree with patryce. I am currently a Tech Coach at an elementary school that has had an infusion of money for technology due to being awarded the SIG. Unfortunately our $ is coming to an end, along with my position. Currently my district has no plans to maintain a Technology Coach either at my school site or in a district level so that real, responsible integration can actually take place. Now my staff will have to fend for themselves at a time when many were just getting their feet wet and starting to see the capacity for technology integration to transform their classrooms into environments that go beyond the multiple choice test and into the world of project based learning.

Why only 8 comments? I expected more. I did send one in, and it’s not here. I suppose you selected only 8 comments? Why limit to 8? I personally would like to read more of others’ comments. :-)

February 14, 2013

To burbankelem:
It is a rather sad statement that your district is not willing to continue the use of a Tech Coach to keep striving for better educating its students. That shows once again how ignorant and ungrateful some school boards are when it comes to grants, free resources. Putting it blandly the already invested monies and professional growth education for the participating teachers are a waste of resources. Give it a little time and the entire purchased infrastructure with the SIG grant will be end up in a box in a corner unused, broken and eventually thrown out. I’ve seen things like this happened and it really bothers me. Grants are nice and important but I wish that grant providers would put provisions in place to “force” the grant seeker to continue with the project even after the grant monies tried up.