Union leader floats laptop plan to free up classroom space

In an unusual twist to the idea of mobile computing in schools, the president of a Florida teachers union said the state could save millions of dollars by giving laptop computers to all high school students and teachers.

To help meet the requirements of a new state law reducing average class sizes, United Teachers of Dade County President Pat Tornillo proposed to Gov. Jeb Bush Feb. 10 that the state convert 1,680 high school computer labs into classrooms and give laptops to the students and teachers instead.

Tornillo estimates that buying 644,000 laptops would be $30 million cheaper than the cost of building the additional classrooms required under the law. The computer labs, which represent the equivalent of 34 high school buildings, would free up space for more than 1,600 classrooms, he said.

Bush, who met with Tornillo at Florida International University at Miami, said the project “could be a win-win” because it would advance classroom technology while also solving the class-size dilemma.

“If you take [Tornillo’s] math, on the surface it makes sense,” he told the Miami Herald.

In an interview with eSchool News, Tornillo said he proposed giving laptops to the state’s high school students because they will enter the workforce first and would need the computer experience sooner.

Details about whether students could keep or purchase the laptops after graduation, or whether the program could be expanded to the state’s middle or elementary schools, have yet to be worked out. Tornillo said he intends to meet with some of the governor’s aides and members of the legislature to hammer out a full plan soon.

Educational technology advocates who spoke with eSchool News said they thought the proposal was intriguing but added that it might need more exploration.

“Ubiquitous computing … can turn a classroom or space into a computer lab, so at the moment I don’t see what they would be losing,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer (CEO) of the International Society for Technology in Education.

However, the state’s education leaders would need to make provisions for computer activities that require lots of computing power, such as editing high-end graphics, Knezek said: “There are some instances where super high-end desktops make more sense.”

He suggested that the leftover desktop computers could be deployed in the state’s elementary and middle schools, or school libraries that aren’t yet fully equipped.

Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, said the program sounds like a good idea, providing they’ve calculated their $30 million in savings based on the total cost of ownership. Besides the initial expense of purchasing the machines, giving laptops to every student and teacher might increase the costs associated with technical support, replacement, and reliability, he said.

But giving laptops to every student and teacher would provide more benefits than just cost savings, Krueger said. It also would mean 24-hour access to technology resources, enhanced flexibility and portability, increased equity, lighter backpacks, and the opportunity for parents and siblings to receive computer access, too.

“There’s a tendency to focus everything on budgets and cost savings,” Krueger said. “We need to make sure we are using technology to solve a problem, not just [for] cost savings.”

See these related links:

United Teachers of Dade

Gov. Jeb Bush

International Society for Technology in Education

Consortium for School Networking

eSchool News Staff

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