One-to-one computing–and the educational possibilities that arise when each student has access to his or her own machine–has been the dream of many school officials for some time. But budgetary realities have kept most school districts and states from achieving this dream. Now, as one state moves toward implementing a one-to-one desktop computer program, another appears poised to cut funding entirely from its statewide laptop initiative.

Federal and state budget cuts have led Michigan state officials to consider ending that state’s far-reaching one-to-one laptop program for sixth-grade students. Similar budget concerns have led Indiana state officials to go ahead with what many call a less-practical, desktop one-to-one model for the entire state’s high schools.

Success has been reported with both programs. Indiana’s desktop program is in its infancy, with pilot projects dating back two years. Michigan fully deployed its laptop program only last fall.

“Look at it like a pencil: Imagine if five or six kids had to use the same pencil. At this point, it’s similar with five or six kids to a computer,” said Mike Huffman, technology chief for the Indiana Department of Education.

“The same is true with textbooks. Here’s one textbook; you have five kids who have to share it, [each] gets to take it one day a week. You limit the options that you have. We believe that if we have one-to-one computing in a classroom area, then the options are open.”

Toward that end, Indiana has chosen a one-to-one desktop model for its high-school classrooms. The desktop computers are being bought at commodity prices, without extended warranties or service agreements. School technology coordinators are expected to handle the maintenance on the machines.

Each student will receive a CPU and monitor. To keep costs down, the systems are run with open-source operating systems and other software.

Special desks also are being purchased by the state. They are designed to place the monitor underneath the surface beneath a glass panel; the CPU fits neatly inside and leaves room for other materials and a work surface area on top.

State funding for school technology in Indiana used to be around $20 million to $25 million annually. The current budget crunch has reduced that amount to just $2.5 million per year since 2001. Indiana’s entire desktop computing program is expected to cost $550 per student. Compared with the industry-standard, $1,300-per-student cost for a laptop solution, the difference is clear.

Huffman said the bulk of the cost of the one-to-one desktop initiative will be covered with Indiana’s $2.5 million per year in state ed-tech funds, and state officials will use whatever federal funds they can muster to supplement this funding. In addition, he said, Indiana is hoping to foster some public-private partnerships to help keep costs low, though he declined to elaborate.

Huffman acknowledged that maintenance will be an issue that must be dealt with. “Obviously, the number of [technology] staff in the schools right now is limited–it always will be,” he said. “We’re going to have to make sure that the solution we come up with will have the management structure that will allow this to work.”

He added: “Quite simply, it is price-driven for the procurement phase. Once installed, it needs to be curriculum-driven.”

Indiana is taking a “staged deployment” approach to its initiative. “We do believe that the staged deployment–starting in English, moving to science, et cetera–is the best way to roll this plan out,” said Huffman. He said such an approach (1) allows for more time to make improvements to the infrastructure supporting the computers, such as electrical capacity and cabling; (2) provides greater flexibility as the program progresses, which will allow for more rapid changes; and (3) provides a collegial setting in terms of professional development, allowing English teachers to train with other English teachers, for example. The flexibility of such a deployment strategy leaves open the possibility for changing to a laptop program should the price of laptops come down after that, he said.

The program has been running in a pilot phase in certain 11th-grade classrooms for two years. The first year, the state purchased all the desktop CPUs from Wal-Mart for $199 a piece. “This is like a toaster,” Huffman said. “I don’t demand a three-year warranty on a toaster when I go out and buy it.” At this point, he said, the state is not working with contracts at all. But he said contracts will be considered later, should it become possible to get the computers at a lower cost.

Laura Taylor, director of the state’s Office of Learning Resources, believes the program is necessary for Indiana’s continued growth. “As far as teaching and learning and technology standards in the state go, how do we get the kids to master the technology standards if they have no access to the technology? If [computers] can be integrated into the classrooms across the state, it’s important for the state,” she said.

Although she acknowledges that a laptop program would be a better solution, Taylor, too, said they are too expensive–and waiting until laptop prices drop further before moving on a one-to-one program is not an option.

“From a fiscal point of view, this is more affordable,” she said. “It is what we’re forced to do right now in many of our schools. If we can get kids on computers, we can teach them.” She said the price of doing nothing, versus the price of putting a one-to-one program in place that might not meet all the computing needs met by a laptop program, was an easy decision for Indiana state officials.

“We couldn’t afford to have another generation of kids come out without these computer skills,” she said.

Taylor said this fiscal model will hold up for five years. After that, she said, the CPU will need to be refreshed, but the monitors and the desks will not necessarily need replacing. A laptop model, she said, would not hold up past year four.

A less expensive leasing program with a laptop provider also was out of the question. “If I can’t tell you in two years where my funding is going to be, it’s really tough to have a four-year lease unless I give you all that funding up front,” she explained.

Taylor also said the presence of a classroom computer for each student helps with other issues: “Behavior, attendance, and other [problems] have disappeared in the groups that we’ve evaluated so far. The kids are so much more engaged.” The time it takes to get kids to a computer lab and start the class period there–and the opportunities for mischief that kind of trip entails–are also avoided, she said.

Reaction to the plan among Indiana school leaders has been mostly positive–but the response is determined mostly by where a district’s technology plans were headed and how the plan affects them.

Sarah Reed, a teacher at Randolph Southern Junior-Senior High School in Lynn, Ind., has been involved in the pilot program since it began.

“Last year was the first year that all juniors at Randolph Southern had access to computers in English class,” Reed said. Because Reed teaches grades seven, nine, and 11, however, the seventh- and ninth-graders were able to use the computers, too.

Reed said the computers have been used for things that would have been impossible before. She said the students collaborate more with each other, offering suggestions on writing through word-processor features that make it much easier to provide more targeted feedback.

Reed said the same is true for her as a teacher. “Before, kids would bring in pieces of writing, many times handwritten, and it seemed like the comments that I made were general comments,” she said. “For instance, if I felt like organization was a common problem in a piece, but not the only problem, I would often direct my comments toward that. It was difficult to be specific about each piece of work.

“Now, I can call up a student’s computer screen on my screen if he or she has a question about one paragraph or the organization of the whole paper. It makes the instruction and feedback more specific to each student’s needs.”

She concluded: “It’s not that we couldn’t do that before, but it’s much less time consuming” when each student has his or her own computer.

Dorothy Crenshaw, chief information officer for the Indianapolis School District, said she loves the one-to-one desktop computing initiative, “with qualifications.”

Crenshaw said the program is a “bold step for the state.” But she said she does not know exactly how the program will affect Indianapolis’s own one-to-one laptop initiative.

“More discussions are needed to make the state’s program come in sync with the individual school corporations. We need to have a little more planning, a little more discussion; we need to come to a consensus on how to move forward,” she said.

“Our district already has a one-to-one laptop plan,” Crenshaw explained. “Our knowledge base … affirms for us that portable, one-to-one wireless [computing] is really the way to go. Something that is fixed, something that doesn’t give students the opportunity to move it around and personalize [their learning experience] may not be as engaging.”

While acknowledging that the desktop program might be the most immediate, economically feasible way for the state to roll out a one-to-one program, Crenshaw also was critical of the rollout strategy.

“I don’t think that the English class or science class is an equitable way to roll it out,” she said. “Equity in the urban school district is very important. Our program begins for everybody in the sixth grade. For me, there’s equity in that. I don’t think that our students are going to be as well-served with anything that’s modular.”

Crenshaw said professional development would be key to the success of any one-to-one program.

“It changes the makeup of the classroom dramatically,” she said. “You’re never going to have the same classroom ever again when you have 20 or 30 computers in there. When you have student achievement gains, it’s not because you bought a laptop. People don’t say that. They say it’s a great teacher. Right now, our teachers are not as equipped as our students. Good professional development programs will be important in making this program work.”

Michigan steps back

At the same time Indiana is revving up its one-to-one desktop program, financial problems are seriously threatening to keep Michigan from continuing with its “Freedom to Learn” one-to-one laptop initiative.

Greg Bird, a spokesman for the state budget office, said the budget recommendations for the coming fiscal year essentially eliminate funding for the Freedom to Learn program.

The program is now funded at $21 million, Bird said, with $17.3 million of that amount coming from federal ed-tech grants. Those grants are going to be cut by $12.7 million, however, assuming Congress eliminates the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program as expected (see “Congress drops $6B in ed funds“).

According to Bird, the state now plans to use the remaining $4.6 million in federal funding along with state dollars to create a system that tracks the academic progress of K-20 students, and to increase the number of courses available through the Michigan Virtual High School program.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who has led the charge for the Freedom to Learn initiative, “would say that Freedom to Learn is a good program,” Bird said. “But Michigan is continuing to feel the effects of a struggling economy. The state has a $773 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year. Some very tough decisions had to be made.” The items recommended by the Cherry Commission, a panel convened by Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry to improve the number of college graduates in Michigan, are now a higher priority, he said.

Bruce Montgomery, director of the Freedom to Learn program, said he is cautiously optimistic that, as the budget cycle continues, there will be resources available to continue the program.

“Let me put it this way: Schools … have invested a significant amount of time and energy into a program that is basically being pulled from them in a short amount of time,” Montgomery said.

Jeffrey Robinson, a member of the school board for the Detroit Public Schools, argued that it is too soon to end the program before its results are known.

“The benefits of the program really will take longer to calculate. The program is a four-year program,” he said. “Additional time is required for the schools and the state to be able to gain a significant return on their investment in terms of student achievement, lessons learned, and best practices.”

Robinson said he believes the state is being shortsighted in considering an end to the program.

“Continuing to look at this as an isolated expenditure that has nothing to do with the rest of education is not going to … [allow] schools and students to fully take advantage of the benefits of one-to-one technology,” he said.

“I think the funding issue is never going to go away,” he continued. “What we’re going to be doing is … developing creative, holistic approaches to funding technology. Much like schools 100 years ago had to find a way to fund textbooks, schools now will have to find new ways to include technology as an integrated component of their budget.”

Echoing Montgomery, Robinson said he is optimistic Michigan can find a way to continue with its Freedom to Learn program. Though vexing, he said, the funding concerns do not ultimately kill the chance that one-to-one computing will become a reality in education.

“I sometimes get a little bit challenged by skeptics and the bureaucratic process,” he said. “But it really excites me to get out into our schools where we can see the positive effects of one-to-one computing. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement for the program here in Michigan.”

He concluded: “One-to-one computing is a movement. I didn’t start the movement, and I can’t stop the movement.”

Links:

Indiana State Department of Education
http://www.doe.state.in.us/

Freedom to Learn program
http://wireless.mivu.org/

Michigan Office of the State Budget
http://www.michigan.gov/budget/