Last year, Broward County Public Schools embarked upon an ambitious, $68 million Digital Learning initiative with two goals in mind: (1) to provide students with greater and more equitable access to technology, and (2) to improve the district’s tech-support model. The result: There is now one wireless laptop computer for every six students in the district–and tech-support costs have plummeted.

“We usually pull inventory to see what’s old, what’s out of date, what’s out of warranty or not worth keeping or fixing,” says Angela Coluzzi, director of network integration. Before the 2005-2006 school year, Broward discovered there were between 40,000 and 50,000 machines that should be replaced.

One of the key components of the technology refresh initiative was the laptop cart program. Under Coluzzi’s leadership, the district delivered 2,000 mobile laptop carts throughout all schools, each loaded with up to 20 wireless-equipped Apple or Dell laptop computers, a Cisco Aironet 1000 Series lightweight access point (for carts at schools that did not already have access points installed throughout their buildings), and a Lexmark printer.

The cart program was the result of a study, conducted by the University of Miami, of four pilot schools in the district, in which each student received a laptop to take home. Researchers wanted to see if giving every student a computer would boost learning. Interestingly, the study showed that, rather than helping students learn, the laptops often got lost or stolen–and the gain for students was not as high as expected.

Given that outfitting 275,000 students with their own laptops would be cost-prohibitive, Broward officials decided that it made more sense for students to share laptops during the school day. “As long as the teacher had the ability to give students use of the computers when [he or she] wanted them to use one, [the students] saw incredible gains,” says Coluzzi of the research.

Bretford Inc., the cart vendor, worked with Broward County to customize the 2,000 carts, adding rubber bumpers around the inside and rails around the top of the cart.

They also added two wheels, turning the carts from rather unwieldy four-wheeled vehicles to something far sturdier that could travel easily across gravel. That was the result of a meeting with teachers and principals after a pilot of the program to find out how useful the carts were.

“One of the main problems was getting the carts in and out of the portable classrooms,” explains Coluzzi.

The technology refresh program also included the purchase of 5,000 Lexmark multi-function printers/ copiers/scanners–the first step in a long-term goal of providing printers to all 13,000-plus classrooms in the district. Teachers are using the devices not only as printers, but also as scanners to scan bubble sheets from quizzes and tests into their computers, so formative assessment data can be imported automatically and are available instantly in the teachers’ Excelsior Pinnacle gradebooks–and, in turn, in the district’s student database. This saves teachers valuable time and reduces the amount of time school leaders have to wait before analyzing results.

The LANDesk Management Suite software, added as part of the refresh program and which Broward uses for inventory control, helps tech team members control the software that can be loaded onto any single computer. This helps avoid issues such as viruses. “We can see what’s on the machine, and we can also lock it down so [students] can’t load stuff onto it,” Coluzzi explains.

Plus, when someone logs onto the network using a computer that doesn’t have the latest version of anti-virus software, LANDesk quarantines that computer, so any potential viruses don’t spread. LANDesk also allows tech-support staff to see the computers that already have viruses, so they can take necessary action to get the computers cleaned.

Often, teachers and administrators don’t realize how easy it is for one school to become infected and begin to infect other schools, according to Coluzzi.

Teachers received training on using the laptops in a classroom setting for instructional activities. At the same time, teachers were taught skills aligned with the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Education Technology Standards for Teachers. This level of staff development enabled teachers to become knowledgeable in using Macintosh and/or Windows operating systems, maintaining and troubleshooting laptops and printers, connecting a standard video projector to a laptop for class viewing, and strategies for using a wireless cart in a classroom.

Teachers were given an online pre-test of competency based on learning outcomes, which allowed teachers and principals to determine the better staff development path, of two offered, to take. After the training, they were required to take a post-competency test and to pass with an 85-percent or higher competency level.

Once the new computers had been delivered and installed, there remained the problem of removing the out-of-date machines. The district contracted with the vendors to remove 20,000 Apple computers and a combination of approximately 10,000 other devices (Dell computers, printers, and other computer manufacturers’ equipment).

Once the vendors had removed the number of devices specified in their contracts, the district was responsible for removing the remaining equipment. Schools could choose to direct older equipment meeting qualifying criteria into the district’s Digital Divide program or simply surplus it following normal procedures.–JN