Four years ago, Alabama’s Roanoke City Schools faced a technology dilemma. With the increasing importance of web-based educational content and programs, how could our school system, with its limited budget, help its teachers and students move to a virtual learning model that would take advantage of this new dimension in education? We wanted to prepare our students to enter universities and a work place where the internet and online learning would play an ever-increasing role in their education and success.

In 2001, internet resources expanded dramatically in Alabama. The state education department developed and funded the Alabama Virtual Library, a complete set of free online reference databases; Digital Curriculum, a complete set of free video media for all subjects; and ALEX, the Alabama Learning Exchange, an online lesson-plan portal that allowed teachers to create lesson plans online and exchange best practices. To keep pace, textbook publishers were adding digital content to supplement their printed texts. All of the new textbook adoptions came with extensive technology components and an online version in several different languages. At the same time, eRate funding allowed our district to deliver high-speed internet connections to each desktop in all of our schools.

By 2002, it was apparent to the district’s technology committee that instructional technology and web-based content had reached a tipping point. The web had moved from a secondary to a primary instructional resource. Yet it was clear to the committee that our system was not prepared to make the shift to the developing virtual-learning model.

When our technology committee reviewed all the data, one problem stood out: Access to computers was the single biggest barrier to virtual learning. According to survey data, teachers knew how to use existing technology. They used it every day to enter grades, record attendance, and plan lessons. Because of a program of sustained professional development, none of our teachers were intimidated by technology anymore; but regular use of computers for instruction, or assignments that required students to use technology, was happening in only a few classrooms. When asked what would help solve the problem, the consensus was better student access to computers.

Scheduling extended lab time for a technology lesson was difficult. Making assignments for the home was out of the question, because not all students had home computers. Teachers, particularly in the upper grades, wanted to be able to make technology assignments with the same expectations and ease that they made other assignments. Finding an answer to this technology dilemma was our challenge. One solution that other school systems around the country were trying was to give every student a laptop computer. Even with our small school district of 1,500 students, that solution would have cost us more than $163,080 per grade level, which made it impossible.

For us, the answer came out of our parent survey data. According to the data, 80 percent of our students’ homes had computers and internet access–meaning that, in a class of 120 students, only 24 households would not have a computer. If we gave these students a home computer, the cost would be only $15,096. While this was still a lot of money, it was not impossible.

That year, Roanoke City Schools wrote a federal grant proposal and was awarded $55,000 to start a program called Math Achievement with Technology Support (MATS). The program’s aim was to provide pre-algebra instruction to all seventh-grade students using ubiquitous computing. The grant funded a wireless laptop for each of the four teachers on the seventh-grade team; four workstations in each classroom, teacher training, and digital projectors; and, most importantly, home desktop computers for any seventh-grade student household that did not have one.

Over the last four years, the MATS program has grown to include the sixth, eighth, and ninth grades. The grant has been renewed twice, providing money to expand and refine our solution to ubiquitous computing. Along the way, many logistical and pedagogical problems have been addressed and solved. What has evolved is a model of virtual instruction based on every household having a home desktop with internet access.

Logistically, the MATS program starts at the end of each year with a technology survey of sixth-grade households to identify which ones already have internet-ready computers. Sixth-grade parents are told that next year their child will be required to have a home computer with internet access. If they do not have a home computer, one will be provided for them, with preference given to households that are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (about 60 percent of our student population).

Parents that are identified to receive a home computer are asked to fill out a form and pay a $25 deposit. The deposit is refundable when the computer is returned. When parents come in to pick up their computer in July, they are required to receive some basic computer training.

Parent involvement is a key ingredient in the program. Every seventh-grade household receives a “MATS Parent Guide” that explains the program, shows them how to navigate to all the web resources, and explains how to use the school web site to contact their teacher online. Hands-on parent training is offered to all parents who would like to learn more about virtual learning.

An integral part of the home computer program is internet access, so with the help of our local telephone company, each household that receives a computer gets three months of internet access at a reduced rate. At the end of the three months, the rate reverts back to the regular rate. We have had only a few parents discontinue internet service in the last four years because of cost.

Before these computers leave the school, they have to be formatted for home use. Roanoke has a master contract with Gateway to provide all the district’s computers. The home system costs $630 and runs Windows XP on a Celeron processor with 256 MB of memory. This configuration has been reliable over the years, but the most important step in getting these computers ready for home use is controlling the desktop.

DeepFreeze by Hyper Technology and Ghost by Symantec are used to get computers ready quickly and control the desktop. These programs also are the reason service calls on home computers are almost zero.

Ghost is used to make a complete image of all the software on one computer and copy it to all the other computers that will go into homes. Standardizing all the home computers takes about a day. Another advantage of Ghost is that it makes short work of home computers with software problems. If something is wrong with one, the parent brings the CPU to the school and we can re-image it in 30 minutes. If it’s a hardware problem, it’s covered under Gateway’s three-year service agreement.

DeepFreeze gives the school system complete control over the home computer’s desktop and is the reason we have very few calls about the home computers. Once a home computer desktop is “Ghosted,” it is frozen–so that whenever the computer is turned off and turned back on, all the original settings and programs are restored. Once frozen, no new software can be added. Students can download music, games, and so on; but when they turn their computer off, these disappear. With DeepFreeze, students might have the hardware in their homes, but Roanoke City Schools still controls their machines.

As the program has expanded to other grades, the logistics of managing all these home computers has gotten easier each year. We decided after the first year not to check in the computers at the end of the seventh grade. Students keep their computers as they move up in grades. To track which household has a computer, our library checks out the machines. The library software checks on participants at the end of the year to confirm that they still have their computer and that it works. The real check is the student, because he or she has to use it almost every day during the school year. If anything happens, the teacher will be the first to know.

One trend that has emerged is that we’ve seen the digital divide decrease. Each year, we hand out fewer and fewer computers to the same size seventh-grade class. The first year, 26 computers were sent home; last year, there were only 12. As computers have been provided to homes that have never had them before, digital barriers are bridged–and parents see first-hand the importance of being connected to a world-wide web of information and opportunity.

Giving every student access to a computer has allowed teachers to adopt the virtual learning model of instruction. Technology is integrated into every lesson easily, without being intrusive. Teachers use their laptop and digital projector to introduce and enrich lessons, while technology-related assignments are done at home. If the lesson requires each student to use a computer, then the students use the computer lab. Teachers regularly use a variety of web-based resources to enrich and enhance their lessons. Students’ textbooks are online, which allows the teacher to use the many special features of the online book–such as pre- and post-lesson quizzes or manipulative exercises–in class, while assigning homework in the virtual book.

Another key ingredient to the success of our approach is creating a technology safety net for all students. Computers don’t work sometimes, and if you have an assignment due, there has to be a safety net. If the computer “ate” their homework, then students have two alternatives. They can come to school early and use the computers in the lab or in their classrooms, or they can use a satellite lab set up in one of the churches. This lab is staffed and open on school days from 5 to 7 p.m. With these two alternatives in place, if a student’s home computer is not working, there is a place where they can not only get their work done, but also get help.

After four years, Roanoke City Schools is well on its way to solving the technology dilemma it faced. On a very limited budget, we have moved our teachers and students into the world of virtual learning. We have demonstrated that it is possible to leverage students’ home computers into a ubiquitous computing environment. While there are still problems to be solved, our vision is that, within three more years, all of our students in grades seven through 12 will have an instructional environment that prepares them to meet rigorous academic standards and the technology challenges of tomorrow. David Crouse is the director of federal programs and professional services for Alabama’s Roanoke City Schools.