1:1 Computing: Five Critical Questions

Posted on February 20, 2015 by James Bosco

One-to-one (1:1) computing in schools celebrates its 30th birthday in 2015. Apple launched the first one-to-one program in the U.S. with the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) initiative in 1985. ACOT began with two classrooms.

Numerous school districts have started one-to-one programs over the past two decades. Despite recent highly publicized reports of serious problems in the implementation of one-to-one programs, providing one computer for each student is still an active program in many districts while it remains a goal for others.

Debate about the value of one-to-one computing was simultaneous with the beginning of the Apple program and the early emergence of other one-to-one programs. The content of the debate has two issues.

The first argument pertains to the economics. Can districts afford it? The other issue is the cost/benefit of one-to-one programs. Do one-to-one programs have a significant positive impact on student engagement and achievement? At this point, the conversation about one-to-one computing should be informed by what has been learned during the 30 years of experience. Let’s take a look at five key questions that pertain to one-to-one learning.

blue oneDoes one-to-one computing raise student achievement and student engagement in learning?
It’s disconcerting to find that, after 30 years, this question is still being asked and even being used as the basis for research projects. The answer to the question is clear and simple: It depends! The mere fact that computers have been put into a classroom should lead no one to think that, by that fact alone; the learning environment will be changed in any significant way, and certainly not in a positive way. The nature and extent of the impact of one-to-one computing are contingent on how the computers are used.

It’s only when one-to-one computing is an element in a well-conceived plan involving learning and teaching in the classroom that one-to-one can energize the learning environment. Without such a plan and the support and professional development that needs to accompany a well-conceived plan, some teachers will make good use, others “not so good” use. Thus, the overall impact could balance out and, in general, seem to not make much of a difference.

blue twoWhat are the key policy and logistical issues?
Getting the “ducks in a row” to properly implement a one-to-one program is critical. A number of the one-to-one programs that have crashed and burned have done so because of inadequate attention to the logistics. Technologists can learn a lot by talking with counterparts in other districts who have implemented a program.

In a real sense, every teacher who gets computers for their classroom is a customer of the IT department. This requires an adequate number of personnel in the IT department with a clear sense of their mission, which is to get the things started smoothly. There also needs to be recognition of the need for adequate technical and instructional support, which will be directly proportional to the extent that they’re being used.

It’s not good news if the phones for the support personnel are not ringing! It is disconcerting to see districts plunge ahead with a one-to-one program without an understanding of what is required to get the program off to a good start. A bad start does a lot to “poison the well.” The need for good support is not just a start-up issue. The nature of the help that is needed as the one-to-one program proceeds will change, but the need is ongoing.

A key policy point is that the district retains ownership of the computer and can require it to be returned at any time. Students and their parents need to understand the district policy pertaining to matters such as loss, breakage and illegal or inappropriate use of the device.

A policy document of many pages is often used to give the “rules of the game” to parents and teachers. Such policies resemble the multi-screen documents that accompany computer applications, which are often quickly scrolled to the bottom just to check the “I accept” box. It’s important to impose a bit of restraint on the district legal staff so that a clear and crisp policy document can be produced.

Good effort needs to be devoted not simply to distributing a document, but to getting the policy understood. This can ensure that the sign-off is not just perfunctory. Students should be expected to be responsible with their use of the district device and should be treated as such.

blue threeShould BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) be an element in the district’s one-to-one computing efforts?
Moving to BYOD or one-to-one is not an either/or decision. There are a number of districts that have adopted a hybrid approach that includes both one-to-one and BYOD. There’s a good argument in favor of enabling students to use their own learning and communication tools in their school work in the classroom.

Those who are uncomfortable with BYOD often raise are concerns about BYOD fostering cheating and distraction. However, cheating and distraction in classrooms were not born with the use of one personal digital media devices in the classroom and prohibiting them will not eradicate those problems.

Another concern about BYOD is the potential risk to the district network by permitting access by devices other than those provided by the district. There are good technical means that make it possible to permit students to use their own device in the classroom. A hybrid approach is not a conjecture; school districts are implementing such an approach with success.

blue fourWho does the “garden wall” protect?
The purpose of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is to protect children from obscene or inappropriate materials, use of the Internet that might compromise their safety, and to prohibit illegal Internet use. In 2000, many young people were more likely to come into contact with computers in their school than in their home.

Times have changed. With a big increase in the availability of digital media devices–both district owned and student owned–large and growing numbers of children have access to their own personal device or to desktop/laptop computers in their home and in school.

A good case could be made that at this time the filtering and blocking that is required by district computers protects the district more so than the students. Incidents of inappropriate or illegal use of computers by students in school generate parent concern and anger that often is directed to school administrators or the district board. That is not a bad thing. Instances of having kids accessing pornography in the school are likely to cause great turmoil in the school, even causing some to contend that the computers should be removed.

While some school personnel might believe that what the student does when they are not in school is not of concern to them, most teachers and administrators are concerned about the well-being of their students even when they are not in the “walled garden.” The acquisition of the skills and dispositions required to make best use of digital media in an effective and healthy manner should be a commitment of the school that is achieved through specific and concrete practices. It should not be simply left to happenstance.

blue fiveIs one-to-one computing just one more in the list of educational fads?
The answer to this question brings us back to the first question: It depends on how schools move implement one-to-one. One thing is certain: No generation of educators have had a greater opportunity to transform the environment of our schools in a way that represents a giant leap forward in the education of our youth than do we.

In order for this to occur, best practice use of digital media in our classrooms is a necessity. It’s really quite implausible to think of any knowledge worker who does not have the use of the Internet at her or his fingertips. And students are knowledge workers. Not too long ago, the learning resources that were available to students were their teacher and the books in the classroom or the school library, typically a quite limited number.

The learning resources that the Internet provides are now virtually infinite. Access to these resources ought not be limited to the three computers in the room or to a cart that can be brought to the classroom if no other teacher is using it. The likelihood is that we will see a wide variation in the way that school districts across the nation grasp this opportunity. For some districts, the implementation of one-to-one will appear much like a fad with little redeeming educational value. We can only hope that school districts that “get it” will be increasingly abundant.

jamesboscoJames Bosco is a Professor Emeritus at Western Michigan University. His commitment has been to contribute to efforts to seize the opportunity that digital media provides to make our schools work better for our kids. He has been privileged to work with school leaders in districts across the U.S., both teachers and administrators, who are involved in serious efforts to create vibrant learning environments that are possible with best practice use of digital media.