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One Laptop One Child

How about having kids bring their own?

By Wayne D'Orio | September/October 2008
One to one?
One to one?

The request was simple, but it still managed to put its finger on one of the most intriguing technology questions inside K–12 schools today. It was just after the winter holiday break last year and a student in the Bremerton, Washington, school district came back to school eager to show off one of his presents. Only this wasn’t a new shirt or even a fancy smartphone: It was a laptop and he wanted to not only show it off, but use it in class.

The district’s policy didn’t allow for students to bring in their own computers and connect to the school’s network, and the administrators told the student that, says Jeff Allen, the educational technology director for Olympic Educational Service District 114. The issue might have stopped there, and if it weren’t for a visit his parents made to a subsequent board of education meeting, it probably would have. But when his parents asked the board why their son couldn’t connect to the network that they as taxpayers helped pay for, well, suddenly the issue wasn’t so cut-and-dried.

Across the country, the same question is being considered. The idea of having 1:1 computing in schools has turned from if to when, and while the last great hurdles remain price and sustainability, more and more administrators are wondering if the answer isn’t already in their students’  backpacks and bedrooms. With so many students owning computers, especially high schoolers outside of urban areas, it’s easy to daydream about using them to help schools reach 1:1 goals.

Almost as soon as the idea of free technology starts drifting through administrators’ minds, reality intrudes with a highlight reel of bad what-ifs: What if students bring viruses, spam, and other threats to your servers? What if students have such a mishmash of software that even completing a simple project in Word becomes a guessing game of “What Version Do You Have?” What if students use the anonymity of their open computer to im, watch videos, or download music instead of taking notes or listening to their teacher?

Plunging In
while it’s possible to over think this knotty problem and subsequently make no changes in your system, some districts—including Allen’s—are slowly setting up programs with the idea that they will learn as they go.

“The whole thing with 1:1 is it’s going to happen regardless, in spite of us,” says Mark Klingler, the director of technology services for Forsyth (ga) County Schools. Klingler admits allowing students to use their own computers in class helps boosts the district’s already formidable technology base, but also raises questions—some of which his team has still to answer.

“It definitely creates classroom management issues, including many we haven’t thought of yet,” he says. Nonetheless, Forsyth is plunging ahead in a limited manner, handpicking teachers to quietly tell select students about the policy. However, the district did alter its Acceptable Use Policy, eliminating the ban on personal computers in the classroom. So, Klingler says if any enterprising students figure out the policy change, they’ll be welcome to join the experiment.

Jason Murray, coordinator of district technology of Cornwall-Lebanon (pa) School District, is also taking the invitation route. “We’re going to invite 20 seniors [this school year] selected by teachers,” he says. We don’t want the computers to be a distraction.”

The Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Illinois, has taken a step in this direction by allowing students to bring their computers to school and connect to the Internet, but not log on to the district’s network, says Darrell Walery, director of technology.

Stay Away from My Network
walery sums up the struggle in this issue succinctly. He says tech directors who have been teachers favor the experiment, while those who have business backgrounds blanche at the thought. “My role as technology director is to mediate this exact issue,” he adds.

it people worry about viruses, worms, phishing scams, and spam, not to mention whatever games or inappropriate content may be loaded on said computer. For these reasons, most would want to avoid the whole problem before it begins.

While Walery admits these concerns are legitimate, he also thinks they can be handled. His district can certify PCs before they are allowed on the network and point users to necessary antivirus tools, and do it easily enough to avoid making students feel as if they’re going through an endless airport security line.

In Forsyth, the district uses radius servers for centralized network management. This device identifies the districts’ computers, allowing them access to the network according to their status. Laptops that don’t pass this test are put on the district’s virtual lan. This gives them online access while keeping the user behind the district’s firewall and within its Internet filters. It keeps these computers—and their users—away from the district’s network.

The district hasn’t tackled the problem of scanning laptops for harmful content yet, but knows the day for a policy is approaching, Klingler says. “We’re not sure which direction to go or what we’re going to need. The main problem we have is that we know these things are really necessary but we don’t want to make it too difficult for a student to connect.”
Murray’s Pennsylvania district scans each notebook before it can connect to the school server. Clean Server antivirus software is one of the tools it uses to avoid “malware” and worms. Also, the district’s scans point users to free patches and service packs that are needed to keep security up to date.

Compatibility seems to be less of an issue each day as more online applications become available. Rather than install software, schools can subscribe to a number of licenses, allowing students to use the applications from home or school, as long as they are counted in the school’s agreement. Or schools can turn to the growing number of free online tools available to all.

Currently, Walery says his district has hundreds of software titles used across multiple courses, ranging from geometry programs to healthy eating programs. This makes it nearly impossible for a student to get an exact (and legal) match for all the software he or she needs. And even if his it department could find the time and resources to load each computer with what’s needed, Walery says the district’s licenses wouldn’t allow it.

Keeping Control
klingler admits that for it staff, “standardization has been the mantra to keep down total cost of ownership and maintain our sanity. Thin clients seemed to be the way to handle that,” he says, but now student computers don’t fit into that model. That’s why Forsyth is going slow, because “we don’t want to bite off more than we can support,” he says.

Classroom management is another potential worry. If college professors feel like students sometime use their lectures as a quiet place to fool around or get other work done (see sidebar), then what chance do K–12 teachers have of getting—and keeping—25 students on task?

Teachers in Pennsylvania use classroom management software (a small software download) to keep control. Murray says this program allows teachers to take complete control of each laptop if they want, pushing out their lesson to each screen, blocking all work with a single button, and even using the pcs as glorified personal response devices.

The last big hurdle to make this policy a reality in more districts is one that can’t be cleared with a simple software program. It is instilling the idea that teachers will no longer be the dominant information delivery for each class. If a school goes 1:1 but the students use the computers only as a better way of taking notes, the whole experiment will fail. “We can solve most of the technology concerns about security,” Walery says. “How do you get teachers prepared to teach in a classroom where everyone is a teacher?”

That is why a transformational venture like this requires teacher and administrator buy-in, the earlier the better, Klingler says. “Professional development is key. We have instructional technology specialists at every school. These folks are not the fix-it people but certified teachers [usually from that same building]. It’s a peer.”

Benefits Abound, Too
but enough doom and gloom. if 1:1 computing brought only trouble, no one would bother trying to get it off the ground. The reality is that a well-run program where more students have access to technology and use the tools in meaningful ways is a goal for every school.

“There’s an explosion of social activities” that computers enable, Murray says,  from talking with people worldwide to keeping in touch with like-minded groups through Twitter to having students take virtual field trips halfway around the world, or just down the street. Science students can do an online dissection with step-by-step analysis, or math problems where a simulation can help illustrate a difficult-to-grasp concept, he adds.

If used correctly, computers in more hands can help speed schools along the path to 21st-century learning, Walery says. “You’d be teaching them how to collaborate and work in the tech-rich time that we’re in. Teachers need to think about teaching in a different way,” he says. “If you’re doing that, a lot of these [problems] go away.”

Having kids bring in their own computers can help bring 1:1 a lot closer to reality, especially in poorer districts. Klingler says Forsyth can channel its existing computer stock to students without personal computers and help reduce tech disparity.

While Forsyth is able to hew to its computer replacement policy closely, Murray’s Cornwall-Lebanon (pa) School District faces another problem. While his state’s Classrooms for the Future program brought 550 pcs into the district, the technology coordinator realizes he won’t have the funding needed to replace these machines in three or four years. “We have to get on board [with this program] now to sustain what we have,” he says. “Technology is fairly expensive. This is a viable option. To really get ahead in the workforce today, you have to have a fairly good technology background. Some schools can’t afford a 1:1 program.”

The Next Laptops?
savvy tech directors already predict  that as technology advances, kids will move on from the laptop.

“The cell phone is their thing,” Walery says. “Communication is the main [goal]. They constantly text back and forth.”
Most districts tolerate cell phones, but require them to be turned off in class. Murray says that free online programs could allow teachers to use student cell phones as personal response devices. Instead of picking the next American Idol, the phones could be used for a multiple-choice quiz in geometry, he says.

Pennsylvania’s Murray already sees  students shying away from laptops because of the weight of carrying them around. “It’s much more likely in a few years all students will have their own smartphones,” he says.

The mini computers that are popping up with smaller form factors might become the next big player in the K–12 space, he says. Forsyth has even looked into using Sony Playstation handhelds in class, noting that they have a “decent Web browser.”
“We want to support whatever kids bring in,” he adds.  

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