Superintendent Joe Redden is recommending a $69.9 million lease agreement with Apple Computer to provide more than 63,000 wireless laptops to teachers and students in Georgia’s Cobb County School District. If approved by the school board on March 9, Cobb County’s “Power to Learn” program will be among the largest one-to-one learning projects in the United States.

The price tag for the program, which is scheduled to be implemented in three phases, could amount to more than $88 million, but in March, the Cobb County school board is being asked to consider the $69.9 million commitment expected to take the program through its first four years. Additional funding would be needed in the out years. Redden told eSchool News he is asking the board to approve the program one phase at a time.

After a series of intense negotiations that included bids from Dell, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, Redden and his team announced Apple‘s selection on Feb. 9, citing a tentative four-year agreement that reportedly would provide 63,000 iBook G4 laptop computers, including software, maintenance, and training at $350 annually per machine.

Inspired by a handful of large-scale, one-to-one initiatives currently under way in such places as Maine, Michigan, and Henrico County, Va., the Cobb County venture would be among the first in the nation to provide laptop computers to both middle school and high school students. Though such programs have usually been launched in lower grades–thanks to smaller enrollments and more structured learning environments–officials in Cobb County want to get laptops into the hands of older learners, too–many of whom will rely on the technology as they enroll in college and enter the workforce.

Pending board approval, the Power to Learn program would be rolled out in three phases, with the first notebook computers being issued to teachers in this spring. As part of this initial phase, the district also plans to designate four schools, “or demonstration sites,” to test the program. The pilot sites would begin using the laptops by fall 2005 to conduct teacher training and explore classroom uses of the technology.

Staring in 2006, phase II would distribute the wireless notebook computers to every high school student in the district, providing that their schools have met the necessary readiness requirements, including the proper amount of staff training and infrastructure development.

The last phase of the program would put laptops in the hands of every middle school student in the district, though school system officials caution that each phase “will move forward pending school board approval.”

One-to-one computing could become the standard in Cobb County, Ga., if the district gets an expected 63,000 wireless iBooks. (Photo courtesy Apple Computer)

Heading into the critical approval process, Redden has expressed confidence that the school board will support the program.

“The Power to Learn program represents a tremendous step forward for education in Cobb County,” he said in a statement. “Our school board members have demonstrated that their vision of educational excellence goes beyond doing things the way that they’ve always been done. Real leadership is about using the best technology available to help students learn in new and better ways.”

To promote what Redden calls “anytime, anywhere learning,” each machine will be equipped with a bundled software package that includes Apple’s versatile iLife suite, an array of editing tools used to manipulate digital photographs and movies for use with classroom presentations and other learning assignments. The computers will also feature the Microsoft Office productivity suite and AirPort Extreme for high-speed, wireless connectivity.

The machines will be powered by the latest Mac OS X operating system–one Cobb County service technicians have touted as secure and largely resistant to crippling computer viruses.

In the event that something does go wrong, the school system’s contract with Apple also includes provisions for the construction of a specially designed service facility staffed by seven full-time Apple technicians and trainers who will work with educators throughout the school system.

The program will require those who use the computers to obtain insurance for damaged or stolen machines. Redden said the insurance will cost $50 per year per machine. He told eSchool News local business leaders have assured him they will make funds available to parents who can’t afford to pay the premiums.

The majority of the four-year lease program will be paid for with funds from a local tax fund approved by voters in 2003. Although the central pieces of the deal are already in place, Cobb County administrators still are on the lookout for a wireless internet service provider to make use of the G4’s additional connectivity.

Not everyone in Cobb County shares Redden’s enthusiasm for the investment. When asked about the opposition, district spokesman Jay Dillon said most objections have centered on the size of the program.

“It sounds like a very large number when you throw out the millions that are being spent on technology,” he said. “But that doesn’t take into account the money we are already spending.” Rather then viewing the project as yet another initiative, Cobb County officials are encouraging parents and other concerned community members to look at Power to Learn as a new means of achieving a longstanding goal. “This isn’t a technology project … that’s not the focus here. It’s a whole new way of teaching and learning,” he said.

To quell lingering concerns, district officials have created a web site to answer questions about the program and are currently holding a series of informational sessions designed to explain how the project will evolve.

So far, large-scale laptop programs in other parts of the country have encountered funding challenges but have had generally positive results.

Back in 2002, Maine became one of the first states in the nation to launch a statewide one-to-one computing initiative. The program–launched in two phases–provided iBooks to 36,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students in 241 public middle schools across the state. Despite receiving high marks from both students and teachers on a mid-year evaluation, program proponents have struggled to secure enough money from the state legislature to move the program into high schools (See story: “Maine laptop program gets high marks in mid-year survey“).

Tight budgets also threaten to derail a similar statewide program currently under way in Michigan (See story: “Michigan signs $68M deal with HP for school laptops“). Dubbed, “Freedom to Learn (FTL),” the $68-million contract with computer-maker Hewlett-Packard seeks to eventually put laptops into the hands of more than 132,000 middle-school students statewide. But the fate of that program is now uncertain as a result of President Bush’s proposed elimination of the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology state block grant program.

If federal funding is eliminated, and alternative state and local funding cannot be found, the program would grind to a halt by the summer of 2006, according to Bruce Montgomery, of Ferris State University, executive director of FTL. Currently, 20,457 Michigan students in 185 school buildings are using laptops under FTL, Montgomery reported.

And in Henrico County, educators committed more than $24 million to a similar four-year deal to outfit 24,000 sixth- through twelfth-graders, plus more than 3,000 teachers and every elementary classroom across the district with iBooks. That program was expanded in 2003 despite nagging technical glitches and a few reports of students using their computers to download pornographic images. (See story: “Henrico schools to expand $18.5M laptop program“).

Back in Cobb County, superintendent Redden believes it’s only a matter of time before the technology makes believers out of the opposition. While the technology presents its share of challenges, he says, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks.

“Research shows you can keep adding more and more computer labs and not have much effect on learning,” Redden said. “But when you match each child to his or her own computer, one-to-one, you provide more opportunities for individualized instruction and the results are almost immediate. This generation has grown up in a digital world, and the children acclimate to technology very quickly. It gives many kids a whole new focus on school because the technology makes learning more engaging and interactive, and the fact that it’s wireless means students have access anywhere, anytime.”

Links:

Cobb County School District
http://www.cobb.k12.ga.us/

Cobb County Power to Learn
http://www.cobbk12.org/powertolearn/

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com