When Jeanne Hayes set out to research the deployment of 1-to-1 computing programs in the nation’s schools earlier this year, she expected to see growth in the number of schools that have adopted 1-to-1 strategies. She didn’t expect to see so much growth.

According to her survey of all 2,500 school systems in the U.S. with at least 4,000 students, more than 23 percent said they are implementing 1-to-1 computing programs in at least one grade. Compare that to the last known survey on the topic, market research firm Quality Education Data’s “Technology Purchasing Forecast” for the 2003-2004 school year. In that survey, only 4 percent of respondents said their districts were planning any kind of 1-to-1 program that year.

“Because our sample survey [includes] only the top 2,500 districts, who are generally slower to adopt new technologies than very small districts and independent schools, I was surprised” by the results, said Hayes, the former head of QED, who left that firm in 2004 and now runs her own consulting company, the Hayes Connection. “That’s a big jump in two years.”

Hayes’ survey, which was conducted along with the Greaves Group, also found that 48 percent of school district chief technology officers said they were likely to purchase a computing device for each student by 2011.

A number of recent developments could be helping to fuel the growth in 1-to-1 programs among schools. For one thing, early research into the effectiveness of these programs appears promising, though experts caution that further study is still needed.

Districts and states implementing 1-to-1 programs so far report higher attendance rates, fewer discipline problems, and improved writing skills among students.

Michigan’s Freedom to Learn initiative, which had supplied laptops to nearly 21,000 students across 95 school districts by last fall, has led to more independent research and student discussion in classrooms, according to an evaluation conducted last spring. Nearly nine out of 10 students say they’re glad to have laptops, and the same percentage of lead teachers say the program has increased student motivation. Whether that will lead to increased student achievement remains to be seen; at press time, test-score evaluation data were expected later this spring. In Maine, one of the pioneers in the 1-to-1 computing movement in schools, evaluators there tell a similar story. The results have been encouraging enough for state education leaders to renew Maine’s contract with Apple Computer on Apple’s iBook laptops for four more years.

Another factor in the growth of 1-to-1 programs: After years of budget deficits, the fiscal climate in many states is improving (see story, Page One). As state budget scenarios improve, state and local education leaders are looking for ways to better engage students in learning and make their school experience more relevant to the 21st century. Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota are among the many states that aim to follow Maine’s and Michigan’s lead. All have proposed or are embarking on laptop computing programs of their own.

A third factor is that new options in 1-to-1 computing are expanding the choices available to schools. At the Florida Educational Technology Conference in March, Hewlett-Packard Co. announced a new bundled solution that aims to simplify the deployment of 1-to-1 programs in schools.

Called “Computing in a Box,” the solution combines HP notebooks or tablet PCs with Microsoft Office Pro, OneNote, and Student 2006 software; professional development for educators; laptop replacement and imaging services; and a four-year warranty–all for what the company calls “as little as $1 per day, per student.” (With a minimum deployment of 100 units, the notebook version of the solution starts at $357 per computer, per year for a four-year lease; the tablet version starts at $529 per unit, per year.)

HP also has founded a national nonprofit organization, called the One-to-One Institute, to help schools design and launch 1-to-1 computing programs.

There also are an increasing number of hybrid-style computing devices that give educators concerned about the cost of laptops or tablets–and the limited functionality of handhelds–new options.

In March, Microsoft unveiled a new device called the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) amid much fanfare. It’s about the size of a large paperback book but runs a full version of the Windows XP operating system.

Microsoft says this ultra-compact, wireless-enabled PC is everything a full computer or laptop is, minus the keyboard. Weighing about two and a half pounds, the 1-inch thick device sports a 7-inch touch-sensitive screen that responds to a stylus or the tap of a finger.

“It really opens up new possibilities for PC use,” said Bill Mitchell, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Mobile Platforms Division.

Expected to retail for between $500 and $1,000, the device offers a smaller and more cost-effective alternative to a full tablet computer, but with the same basic functionality. And Microsoft is marketing the device to schools as well as consumers.

“Schools have the ability to change the color plate on the device. Schools can offer the UMPC in kid-friendly colors, which is valuable for student appeal, but also for districts buying the devices to brand them and protect them from theft,” said Anthony Salcito, general manager of Microsoft’s education programs.

Moving too fast?

But amid these developments, some people caution that states and school systems are moving too fast in implementing 1-to-1 programs.

In New Mexico, students, teachers, and administrators are lauding an initiative by Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration to provide laptop computers to seventh graders, but a legislative audit has found flaws in the program’s implementation. About 5,000 laptop computers have been purchased over three years with $6.7 million approved by the state legislature. The Legislative Finance Committee estimated it could cost about $35 million a year if every seventh grader across New Mexico is given a laptop, but committee auditors questioned the cost of the computers and whether they are being adequately integrated into the curriculum.

“Laptops are not being used for the originally intended purpose of the initiative, which is to provide students with a technology-based learning tool for everyday use,” auditors said in a report to the committee. “Laptops appear to be used mostly for special projects, and few laptops were observed on student desks or in use for instructional purposes.” Auditors visited four schools and talked to officials in a fifth school as part of their assessment.

Public Education Secretary Veronica Garcia took issue with portions of the audit and said auditors needed to examine more schools before drawing conclusions about the laptop initiative.

“Can we improve the implementation? Certainly,” Garcia told lawmakers. But she said students are becoming more proficient in technology because the state is providing laptops.

Questions about whether, and how well, computers are being integrated into instruction are only part of the problem. Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., believes 1-to-1 computing ultimately holds the key to education’s future–but he has some real concerns about today’s technology options and their cost.

“In today’s current hardware, software, and content markets, large-scale, long-term 1-to-1 [laptop] initiatives are not affordable,” Moore said, noting that studies of the total cost of ownership for current 1-to-1 projects don’t yet exist. Though he favors the idea of extending computers into the hands of every student, Moore said giving students 24-7 access to their own laptops or tablets isn’t yet a viable option–and the current hybrid solutions on the market today simply aren’t good enough.

“I find it interesting that, on one hand, we talk about kids being knowledge workers,’ then on the other hand some people espouse solutions for them that no knowledge worker would accept,” he said. “I have to believe it is because some people have so completely bought into the idea of 1-to-1 [computing] that they will do so even with devices that sacrifice the productivity of students.”

He added: “Students … need devices that will allow them to access information, analyze data, organize various forms of information, present information, and communicate in a variety of formats. As much as I like my PDA, phone, Swiss army knife device, it is in no substitute for a computer. … A knowledge worker needs far more than these.”

Moore said he’s encouraged by the work of Project Inkwell and its attempt to develop a device with the perfect form factor–and price–to make it a viable, long-term 1-to-1 solution for schools. Until then, he said, 1-to-1 computing in his district will have to wait. (For more on Moore’s thoughts about the topic, see the Viewpoint on the following page.) Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent of technology for the Plano Independent School District in Texas, has a different perspective on 1-to-1 computing–and one that might serve as an answer in the meantime.

Hirsch’s district is testing the use of Sony PlayStation Portable devices to run Riverdeep educational software, as well as the Nokia 770 internet tablet and the new Learning PAD from ETG Technologies. Teachers can supplement their classroom computers with mobile laptops, handheld probes, digital cameras, or even PDAs, based on their requirements for a given class period.

“One-to-one computing, to me, isn’t a PC for every student,” Hirsch said. “It’s getting the right resource into the hands of students when they need it.”