Why 1:1 Programs in our Schools are Obsolete

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If you are considering a 1:1 program for your school, you may want to stop and reconsider.

There are volumes written about the need to equip today's students with technology to ensure they have the tools necessary for success in the world today. For many schools, they look forward to the day when every student in the class has a computer.

But I’m beginning to think this isn’t enough.

First, a bit of background.

I work with a team of exceptionally bright and passionate people who are not constrained by the past and by the fear of doing things differently from others. As a matter of fact, they welcome big change that advances their goal of creating an exceptional learning experience.

Long before I showed up, they recognized that there was a significant advantage in providing every student, and every teacher with a laptop computer. That was 14 years ago.

In the ensuing years, I think the school is over the novelty of every student having a computer. (One of the best photo ops you will ever get is the moment after handing a student a brand new computer or tablet. The excitement in their eyes is magical, but don't let enchantment with the new toy be confused with engagement in the classroom.)

I was recruited 4 years ago to put the things in place to take the 1:1 program to the next level from a teaching/learning perspective. We've been spending a fair bit of energy determining how technology really enhances the learning experience.

We've learned a lot.

We have created an environment that requires students to use computers to receive, complete and submit the majority of assignments. There are no other options. Without a computer, the class cannot continue.

We have created an interactive collaborative learning platform that has added measurably better interaction and feedback between students and teachers. We are redesigning teaching spaces and integrating media creation in more than art programs.

We issue students and teachers pen-based tablet PCs (refreshed every 2 years), and have built up the supporting infrastructure to ensure that robust access to the Internet is available everywhere (could your network handle over 20 users all streaming video wirelessly on one access point at the same time?)

When computers break, and they do when you assume they are being used an average of 10 hours a day by teenagers, we have on-site warranty repair and a loaner pool. By choosing a technology platform that allows us to swap hard drives, we can get students with their configuration intact back to class in a minimum amount of time.

We have implemented applications that have a remarkable 90% plus voluntary adoption rate in their first month. We have automated many of the administrative tasks and functions saving valuable time for teachers.

But even with all this, we are not resting on our laurels.

I'm becoming more convinced the next significant change is going to be our 1:1 program.

First a caveat, because I'm talking about it in this blog doesn't mean we are actually going to do it. My team might be reading this and they tend to get a bit worried when I start having these kinds of thoughts… It usually means I stretch the limits of what they think their creative capacity is. (History has shown they always break through and amaze themselves and others).

I have often said that I'm very willing to share past and current experiences for others to learn from, to adapt or adopt the successes and avoid the failures of my team. I don't appreciate conference speakers who go on endlessly about projects they are “going to do” or have just received approval but have not implemented.

But I'm going to break from this just this once, and use this post to think out loud about what we are going to consider doing in the hope of stimulating feedback and discussion.

Let me give some more background to my current thinking.

Back in the days when I had hair, I was involved in helping organizations automate their engineering departments using Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) software. Back then, it cost close to $15,000 per seat to automate (in 1990 dollars). Getting the maximum value and productivity out of this investment was critical and all costs had to be justified against measurably increasing productivity.

I expanded the automation from CAD to desktop publishing. Once again, it was a significant investment and critical to maximize the productivity of the user.

In both these cases, it became apparent that a single monitor hindered the user from having enough working space. Adding a second interactive monitor measurably increased the production of the user.

Jumping back to the classroom, we have been used to working with two areas of focus – our notebook, and our textbook or other reference books. If we were working on a project, we would have multiple books open on our desk.

Since we've automated, we now have a computer screen, and a reference book.

More and more excellent reference material is now available in digital format, effectively replacing the textbook.

So why do we think we can cram all of that into one 9.7” or 12.5” screen?

The answer is not getting bigger screens (although the math department would disagree with me). The additional weight and price of the 15” displays make them impractical in our model.

Which is why I feel schools seriously need to forget about 1:1 programs, and start thinking about 2:1, or at least 1.5:1 programs.

In the (not so distant) future, I see students carrying two devices – one of which may be a touch screen laptop and the other a lightweight tablet (or perhaps the mobile device already in their pocket).

But in our world, it is not as simple as adding a second device, or as I like to call it, a second screen. Doing so would exacerbate the very problem that most 1:1 programs have – the expectation that adding technology makes you more productive, or able to learn better.

In order for the second screen to be useful in education, it has to meet a few criteria. I’ll keep the points short for now and expand in future posts.

In order for the “second screen” to enhance teaching and learning it needs to:

  • Expand the learning resource pool by bringing multiple ecosystems into the classroom. Both the Windows and Apple platforms have strengths and capabilities missing on the other platform. The ideal second screen would provide both ecosystems for the student, but be set up in a way that they seamlessly shared files, photos and other information.

  • Play well in a non-homogeneous environment. There has been much talk of certain technology that performs brilliantly in the “walled garden”, but is less than stellar when it needs to play outside the walls. You should not design your system to be exclusively Apple, or exclusively Windows. You are robbing your students and educators of significant opportunities.

  • Connect to school infrastructure (networks, projectors, etc. ) and allow teachers and students to easily display screens from either device without having to go through onerous steps. (Around our school the metric is “Easy as falling off a log”).

  • Support our “Back to Class after breakage” metric. If you hand out technology to teenagers (and younger) you can expect things to break. When it does, can the students be issued a loaner and pick up where they left off? That means that the only copy of apps, data, and assignments are not stored locally on the device. Learning management systems needs to be device independent.

  • Not be a “gold plated” solution. It needs to be simple and affordable.

  • Have a seriously long battery life. By adding yet another device to charge, it’s important that the second screen last all day.

One last thought… is this just an answer to e-textbooks?

While the second screen concept creates a workable solution to electronic textbooks, it doesn't stop there.

By creating the sharing and interactivity between the devices, connected through cloud services, the potential is there to expand the toolkit for the learner is increased substantially.

Does this blow our technology budget out of the water?

This is where Moore’s law comes in.

It is not so long ago that a laptop computer suitable to run the applications needed would cost somewhere around $2000. In my 3-1/2 years at this school, I’ve watched the price point for equivalent power drop to almost half of that. (Remember these are commercial grade, not consumer grade devices).

The price differential to the program is not as harsh as it may first appear, if the devices truly increase the ability of the student to achieve desired educational outcomes. (There is no money better wasted than implementing technology without defining anticipated outcomes, but I digress).

Let me wrap up this post for now. I know I’ll be spending significant time on this subject with my team, my colleagues and partners to implement this second screen model in my current funding framework.

Hey! I know I said we weren't going to do this… but the interesting thing about blogging, is that it’s a great medium to process disjointed thoughts. Having people read (and hopefully) comment is just a bonus. In the course of writing this, I seem to have convinced myself as to its merit.

What do you think?

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