The ‘brutal facts’ of 1-to-1 computing

In case you’ve been asleep for the past few years, there is a new vision for educational technology. This new vision–commonly known as 1-to-1 computing–is the latest in a long list for technology in K-12 schools, which over the years has included a computer lab in every school, computers in every classroom, a computer for every teacher, and all schools and classrooms connected to the internet.

In 1-to-1 computing, every student would have his or her own computer. Just like previous visions, this one makes perfect sense. There will inevitably be a time when every student will have his or her own powerful, lightweight information and communication device–but now is not the time.

This conclusion about 1-to-1 computing is particularly troubling for me, given that I’ve had the good fortune to work in a school district for the past 11 years where the technology budget would be the envy of any school district across the nation. As I began to study the feasibility of 1-to-1 in my district, I came to the conclusion that even with our significant budget, we would have to give up investing in many high-impact technologies to be able to come close to affording and sustaining a district-wide 1-to-1 initiative.

My conclusion ran counter to what was happening in states and districts across the country. They were buying into the 1-to-1 vision, tens of thousands of computers at a time. The more I studied the reports about these various initiatives, I was struck time and time again by the lack of clearly stated and measurable educational goals and the lack of consideration of total cost of ownership (TCO). Instead, proponents of 1-to-1 initiatives tend to rely on feel-good anecdotes and very soft data to stretch correlations with student achievement. Given that 1-to-1 initiatives are by far the most expensive we have ever pursued in K-12 technology, clearly we have a problem.

Many of you might be familiar with the Jim Collins leadership book Good to Great (2001). One of my favorite concepts Collins discusses is what he refers to as “confronting the brutal facts.” Some in the K-12 community might say that today’s proponents of 1-to-1 are merely providing the necessary vision and leadership, but as Collins reminds us, “Yes, leadership is about vision. But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted.” As I see it, the brutal facts are those we chose to ignore because it might be uncomfortable or inconvenient should we acknowledge, let alone wrestle with, them.

In the spirit of Collins’ Good to Great, let’s confront the brutal facts about 1-to-1 computing in our schools. Brutal Fact One: In today’s current hardware, software, and content markets, large-scale, long-term 1-to-1 initiatives are not affordable.

When I use the term 1-to-1, I am referring to the practice of providing each student with his or her own powerful, full-featured notebook or tablet computer. Initiatives that rely on handheld computers or wireless notebook carts are not true 1-to-1 programs.

Even if a district can get a sweet deal on the computers and software, the costs of providing high-quality professional development, support, maintenance, and infrastructure will be prohibitive. When was the last time you heard representatives from any of the large 1-to-1 initiatives report on the program’s complete, long-term TCO? Let me give you a hint: never, because they haven’t calculated it–and if they did, they would find out the initiative is not sustainable. Fortunately, the Consortium for School Networking has begun examining the TCO of 1-to-1 initiatives in a few districts. When published, the results should be enlightening.

My concerns aside, there are a number of things that could dramatically change the market. The two that come to mind most quickly are open technologies and the work being done by Project Inkwell (see

Open-source operating systems and applications are widely used in schools outside the U.S. We are just starting to see glimpses here of how they might dramatically change the economics of K-12 technology, thus lowering the cost of 1-to-1 significantly. The technical and functional requirements that Project Inkwell is developing for a true, K-12 appropriate 1-to-1 device also might lead to a dramatic market shift–but it’s unlikely that either of these factors will have any significant impact in the very near future.

Brutal Fact Two: Providing sufficient, high-quality professional development and technical support for even a modest K-12 technology initiative is difficult, particularly in these times of shrinking operations budgets. Considering the costs of these services for a 1-to-1 initiative is enough to give even a well-financed district technology leader a full-blown migraine.

We’ve all heard the stories of enlisting students in technical support and even in helping to train teachers. These stories have high feel-good quotients, but to suggest that you can rely largely on students for technical support is either naïve or irresponsible.

Any technology initiative needs to have a clear plan for professional development and technical support. Ideally, the professional development should be job-embedded and occur as part of an overall, systemic school improvement effort. As for technical support, 1-to-1 initiatives require districts to have experienced technical staff, particularly in the areas of mobile computing and wireless network infrastructure.

A recent visit of mine to a school in one of the nation’s very large 1-to-1 initiatives illustrates the importance of technical support. A teacher who had been involved since the very beginning of the nearly four-year-long project told me that, because of inadequate technical support, he could not remember a day when every student in his class had his or her computer. If that is indeed a fact, it is truly brutal.

Brutal Fact Three: The increases in student achievement that are being reported by some 1-to-1 initiatives might be merely convenient coincidences, rather than outcomes attributable to every student having his or her own computer. For the past several years, schools across the nation have been focusing on improving student achievement with unprecedented energy, thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act. Research tells us that when you implement curriculum aligned with standards, use formative and summative assessments aligned with this curriculum, and provide differentiated instruction to meet the needs of individual students achievement, gains will follow. This is exactly what has been happening in schools today.

Granted, schools are still experiencing a range of success, but to attribute gains in student achievement solely to ubiquitous computing ignores the improvements we are seeing in curriculum, assessment, instruction, and professional development. Furthermore, specific, measurable gains in achievement are rarely identified as goals of 1-to-1 initiatives; rather, they are reported with a sigh of relief after the fact.

More Brutal Facts: Many of the other reported benefits of 1-to-1 do not necessarily stand up to close examination. Three of the most common are workforce preparedness (or learning 21st-century skills), student attendance, and parental involvement.

If workforce preparedness is a goal of 1-to-1 initiatives, why do the vast majority of initiatives start in the middle grades rather than in high school? Why are we ignoring students who could be entering the workforce in just a year or two? I have read all the reasons, but it still makes no sense. I think there are two overriding reasons. First, 1-to-1 would really shake up a high school–and not many school districts want to tackle true reform in the most sacred of education settings, the American comprehensive high school. Let’s applaud the few that are trying. The second reason is that middle-level education is constantly under fire from a variety of directions. This atmosphere can give 1-to-1 initiatives cover in case of unmet expectations.

Students learning 21st-century skills is another common benefit cited of 1-to-1 initiatives. While these are critical, let’s remember that most so-called 21st-century skills are really skills of the last two decades of the 20th century. Both Information Power (American Library Association, 1988) and the SCAN’s Report (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991) provide the foundation for the 21st-century skills so often referenced today. Neither suggests 1-to-1 computer initiatives, nor will 1-to-1 magically prepare students with 21st-century skills.

It would be impossible to argue the importance of student attendance and parental involvement on achievement. While 1-to-1 initiatives might temporarily have an effect on both, these initiatives will not solve the deeply entrenched cultural and economic factors that can affect parental involvement and student attendance. When I came into this profession nearly two decades ago, the school district I worked for at that time had just installed ILS (integrated learning system) computer labs in each of its elementary schools. I clearly remember that increased parental involvement and student achievement were stated benefits of these outrageously expensive labs.

But there is hope …

Jim Collins in Good to Great tells us to “confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith.” The new vision for 1-to-1 computing in our schools inevitably will come to pass. It is part of the natural evolution of educational technology. To achieve this vision, however, we must be thoughtful and deliberate in our actions. We must have (brutally) honest dialog about the challenges. We need to have clear, measurable achievement goals. For our classroom teachers, we need to provide ongoing, job-embedded professional development. Reliable technical support must be provided. It also is critical that we come to understand the true TCO of long-term, large-scale initiatives so we can budget appropriately. With these in place, we can begin to assess and communicate the true value of 1-1, so we can avoid falling victim to the false promise of the past–and ultimately are successful in our vision.

Bob Moore is the executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley USD 229 in Overland Park, Kan., and former board chairman of the Consortium for School Networking.

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