In recent months, the idea of putting technology in the hands of every student has begun to gather some serious momentum. Georgia’s Cobb County is the latest high-profile district to consider a large-scale laptop initiative aimed at transforming students’ educational experience, following the lead of places like Maine and Henrico County, Va. (see “$69.9 million iBook deal on tap in Ga.“). But significant barriers to these kinds of initiatives remain, the most notable of which is cost. So, what will it take to achieve personal computing for all of our K-12 students?

Although most conversations refer to this concept as “one-to-one computing,” I prefer to use the term “personal computing” because it can refer to circumstances that provide appropriate opportunities for every student to have access to technology tools besides the de facto 1-to-1 ratio. I believe great opportunities for schools to make progress on this important initiative are on the way within the next two years–but they might not take the form that most people now think.

The concept of personal computing itself is not new or even recent. I recall putting together a cart with Apple PowerBook 140s and a LaserWriter printer for use in a local high school classroom back in 1992. No, we didn’t have wireless networking, but we did have AppleTalk over phone cables, so connecting to print was very straightforward. Why bring this up? Well, the major stumbling blocks to providing this solution for every classroom or student were the same 13 years ago as they are today–cost and short battery life. In fact, the battery predicament is going to be with us for quite a while, according to the article “Mobile computing’s energy crisis” in the Jan. 10 issue of ComputerWorld.

The total cost of ownership (TCO) for one-to-one laptop or tablet initiatives is still not well documented. I think all of us in the field of educational technology will agree that providing a well-supported and successful initiative of this type goes well beyond the simple division of an initial purchase price by the number of years in the agreement.

Many of us have heard a “typical” purchase price of $800 per laptop brought up at national conferences, divided by an expected four years of use to provide a yearly cost of $200 per student. Well, I’ve yet to hear of a full-featured laptop with a four-year warranty that can be purchased for $800 in any quantity. TCO practices inform us that we have to include all maintenance and support costs; hence the need for a warranty. In addition, software licenses aren’t free, so remember to add in the cost of providing those applications deemed necessary for student learning for each laptop. Add in curriculum development costs to adequately design activities that enable students and teachers to make the best use possible of this one-to-one computing initiative, plus a bit of professional development for teachers to learn to manage these student-centered classrooms, and the yearly cost will at least double to $400 per student.

That per-student figure is daunting for even the most wealthy school systems in this country. It’s safe to say that under current levels of funding for educational technology and with the current laptop offerings from major vendors, a national one-to-one laptop or tablet initiative is beyond the realm of possibility for more than 90 percent of the school systems in this country today.

Well then, what does the future hold for one-to-one initiatives, beyond some of the interesting experiments already underway around the country? If Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert, and Joseph Jacobson have their way, this one-laptop-per-child goal will be supported via a new generation of laptops that cost $100 each. They claim the cost stumbling block will be overcome with new screen technology, less expensive processors, and open-source software (remember those licensing fees?). Having these three great minds working on this type of solution provides hope for all of us that new possibilities might be coming in the next few years.

I don’t think anyone can argue the experiences a personal computing device can provide for a student are not important; gathering information via the internet, along with using multimedia applications such as iMovie or PowerPoint, are certainly methods that capture most students’ attention and provide meaningful use of 21st-century skills. With all of the “doom and gloom” I’ve provided up to this point, I now want you to consider a different concept of personal computing by leaping over the rhetoric that claims laptops or tablets for every student is the only path to technology nirvana.

What kind of device do many students interact with most frequently already? More and more, it’s a handheld device of some kind. Forget the argument that screen sizes are too small–why did Texas Instruments announce the production of new chips that provide HDTV on cell phones? Why does Europe already have wireless video services that allow you to watch TV via your cell phone? Why do students in Japan demonstrate that they can thumb keyboard at rates approaching a traditional QWERTY keyboard user? Why does the Princeton Review provide SAT preparation via cell phones? Why are Cingular and Verizon working to allow cell phone data (such as photos) to cross their respective networks seamlessly? Why does a software application like CoffeeCup Wireless Web Builder exist? Why does a web site catering to cell phone users like WinkSite exist and continue to grow exponentially? Why have Nintendo and Sony introduced new game systems that have built-in 802.11 wireless capability, along with touch screens and USB ports? What, exactly, does the consumer market know that we, in education, for some reason choose to ignore? It seems screen size isn’t a limiting factor when desired content can be delivered in the form factor produced. Isn’t it time for educators across the country to embrace this personal computing technology as a viable option for use in schools, as well as outside of school?

I think that’s where our efforts need to go–working with content publishers to look at alternative methods of providing access to the information that is required by school systems. And that access has to include the tools students already use. What might happen if a few developers with the SDKs (software development kits) for the new Nintendo and Sony devices focus on educational applications? The devices already have instant-messaging clients–can a browser and a Java environment be far behind? And, if some students already own the devices, the school system doesn’t have to find a way to fund them for all students. We’ll find a way to bring them securely into our networks. Battery life for eight hours and beyond is no longer an issue.

If more processing power is required, look at a device like the Sony Vaio U-750. It has everything a power user could need in a pint-sized package (but unfortunately, for a full-size price at this time). Or consider existing handheld operating systems, like Pocket PC and Palm, through which a Citrix client could allow access to an entire school network system.

School technology leaders need to be planning for these new opportunities that enable students to use their personal computing tools in the school environment–and not be mired in the thinking that laptops or tablets are the only answer. Beyond making sure that school network infrastructures can support adequate wireless network bandwidth, issues regarding user authentication, intrusion detection, and support for multiple operating systems need to be carefully considered. We must figure out how to provide access to our networks in a secure fashion for a plethora of devices, many of which we might not own. This is perhaps the ultimate challenge, or “tipping point,” that will truly accelerate “computing @ every student” initiatives, because common network connectivity will enable the collaboration that students and teachers desire.

I encourage all of us to look at personal computing for students as an important goal to bring 21st-century skill development to our schools–and also help close the achievement gaps among student groups. We need to consider ways in which we can provide digital-based learning tools for all students by leveraging the tools that students already own and use for their personal learning outside of school.

Jim Hirsch is the associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. He also serves on the board of directors for the Consortium for School Networking.