7 big mistakes K-12 education needs to avoid in 1:1 computing plans

After spending a number of years working in the educational tech sector, I can safely pinpoint the two camps that make up the meandering discussion about 1:1 computing plans for K-12 education today. On the one side, we have eager innovators who are determined to place a device in each student's hand -- even if that device fulfills nothing more than a checkbox on an administrator's 'five year outlook' plan.

And in contrast, we have the technical neophytes who are well entrenched in their opposition to devices in the classroom. These folks are the ones most likely to be ingrained in the "industrial force-feeding" approach to education, which by most accounts, is falling flat on its face. As the US continues to slide in education, most recently ranked 17th globally, the debate is no longer whether or not we need a wholesale adjustment of how we teach our youngest minds. Much more importantly, the discussion should be laser focused on how we get US education out of its growing rut.

The status quo, as it stands, clearly isn't working in America. As the rest of the world is evolving in education, we've been selfishly holding onto the industrial force-feeding approach to education. Fear of change; an endless reliance on the broken model of teachers' unions; and wasted funds being dumped on black hole initiatives. Our furthering decline can definitely be turned around, and I fully believe that forward-looking plans like 1:1 computing and flipped classrooms are the answers for the long run.

For as much as we claim to be spending on K-12 education, nationally we have little to show for it:

  • Over 25 percent of students fail to graduate high school in four years.
  • Only 22 percent of US high school students are considered "college ready" in all core subjects according to ACT.
  • For those who do graduate high school, 30 percent lack basic science, English, and math competencies to successfully pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
  • Of the seniors in high school who are considered 'college bound', just 43 percent are meeting college ready standards.

The above is just a sliver of the many issues plaguing our modern education system. For districts looking to infuse technology in an effort to overhaul the way they approach learning, there needs to be a focus on avoiding the mistakes being made nationally in emotionally-inspired initiatives.

Is an iPad in every pair of hands the silver bullet to solving this dilemma? Absolutely, positively not. Alan November penned an eye-opening piece surrounding the lackluster implementation of most tablet based 1:1 initiatives going into place around the country. He wrote, "Unless we break out of this limited vision that one-to-one computing is about the device, we are doomed to waste our resources."

Too many educational leaders are buying into the notion that cool tech will get us to where we want to be. Little do they realize that we are merely spinning in circles, placing high hopes on this year's newest iPad or Nexus without a clear justification for where the device fits into the students' overall learning infrastructure.

Liz Davis had similar thoughts on the iPad rollout in her district just outside of Boston, MA. Like many other short sighted K-12 districts in this country, a tool was named before a clear set of needs were even defined. "In many cases trying to make the iPad fit the curriculum has been like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole." My experience in discussions with former colleagues in the high school education arena yields very similar emotions, so Davis' remarks are not unique.

#7: Follow Functionality, Not Fads, In Choosing Tech

Cool is nice. It makes students and teachers feel good. It allows administrators for easy content on press releases to trumpet plans. And many times, it masks the innate issues with spending large sums of money on technology that will create little value on increasing test scores or bringing up literacy.

While things like iPads and Android tablets are the in-thing right now, is this really the standard upon which we foresee our students learning the next 5, 8, 10 years out? I'd argue that the answer is 'no' more often than not. Coming from the educational arena just as early as last year, I know very well how group-think overtakes discussions on technology in the classroom. We fall victim to believing the media hype over hard concepts that could be easily gleaned through some guided simple pilot testing combined with observation of other districts' maneuvers. The falsehood that what works in the consumer market is always applicable to the education market needs to be squashed fast and hard.

I'm not one that is falling for the ridiculous argument that the PC is dying or going away soon. The mainstay to meaningful computing will continue to be a screen, mouse, and tactile keyboard -- whatever form factor that may entail in the marketplace today or tomorrow. But the argument that a limited function tablet either replaces or eradicates the PC is willfully short sighted both in thought and expectation.

#6: Touch Shouldn't Trump All Else

Aside from the grossly expensive (and highly impractical for education) Pixel, Chromebooks do not offer any form of touch capability on their K-12 focused models. But their uptake in schools nationwide has been skyrocketing, inching on the territory that Apple claims is theirs with the iPad. What gives? Isn't touch the keyword to success in the classroom?

Far from it. Let me correct myself -- touch is not the end all, be all to leveraging 1:1 devices in schools. If it were, we would have been ditching PCs wholesale from schools in favor of iPads and Galaxy Tabs already. While touch capability is a nice way to enhance the learning experience, it doesn't by any means define the future of classroom learning.

Chromebooks don't have touchscreens, a monstrous App Store, or a fruit logo company backing them. Yet the value proposition they bring to the classroom is unparalleled due to a focus on computing features well suited for students and educators alike. (Image courtesy: Google)

Administrators need to keep in mind the balancing act that needs to be played when it comes to evaluating new devices for 1:1 programs. What kind of ports does the device offer? What is the average cost of repair for the platform? Does the device offer tactile-based input options for those who need it?

For example, handling video-out presentations on the iPad is a painstaking game of purchasing the right high priced adapters, and hoping that the iPad will support projector mode on a particular app of choice. Devices like the Chromebook and Surface allow for near seamless projector usage through relatively low priced dongles. I've even seen many Chromebooks (namely Samsung units) even come with the needed VGA dongles in-box. This ease of connectivity extends to the inclusion of standard USB ports that Chromebooks and Surface devices offer. Reducing the barriers to functionality is another key consideration for the connected classroom. The pretty packaging is only as nice as the experience it provides.

Zeroing our discussion in solely around devices drenched in touch-everything does nothing but play into today's marketing keywords. In three years time, when the media is onto something new, early adopters of misguided technologies will have wished they broadened their horizon.

#5: What Do Repair, Replacement, Support Costs Look Like for a Platform?

Narrowing the discussion about a 1:1 device solely around how much it will cost up front per-unit is lacking any realization as to the ongoing costs to keep this newfound ecosystem running. Articles such as this one by Mike Silagadze and another by Tom Daccord paint some of the realism back into this debate by highlighting the repair costs, maintenance tasks, and other challenges to keeping an iPad classroom functioning like a well oiled machine.

SquareTrade, for example, took it upon itself to let loose some stats on 50,000 iPads that it ran across during repairs in 2012. This is the very company which insures all kinds of electronics for websites like eBay and other similar outlets. They get their hands on a wide array of hardware, and keep in mind that their experiences aren't even focused on an educational audience -- one which is quite rough and tumble on the tech it uses due to the age of the users at hand.

This aptly named 2012 iPad Breakage Report told us that one in 10 iPad 2 owners damaging their device within the first twelve months of having it. The iPad 2 has an overall total failure rate of 10.1 percent. Even worse, the iPad 2 was found to be 3.5 times more prone to damage due to accident than the original iPad.

SquareTrade's iPad Breakage Report of 2012 was brutally honest about the cost of ownership when it comes to iPads. Converging a 1:1 computing plan around iPads comes with its share of headaches. (Image Source: SquareTrade)

And SquareTrade isn't alone in warning us about the repair costs of iPad ownership. USA Today did a great story covering the findings of numerous districts across the USA and how much they are spending on keeping their iPad fleets functioning. Marathon Venture Academy of Wausau, WI started providing iPads to sixth through eighth graders in 2011, and of 135 devices loaned out, a full 25 needed to be repaired. A majority of the repairs were to replaced damaged screens with an associated cost of $275/unit. Seeing that a school can purchase a brand new Chromebook for the price of an iPad screen repair, it's easy to see why comparing long term costs is very important for tight bottom lines.

Still more is to be said about the MDM (mobile device management) capabilities offered by various platforms. Chromebooks are excellently leveraged by districts that have existing Google Apps for Education ecosystems, since Chromebook Management licensing runs a mere $30/year per Chromebook device. No extra software, no extra licensing; it's all integrated within the same Control Panel that handles email and user management for the Google Apps ecosystem.

And Microsoft now offers a solution for Windows Surface tablets and traditional Windows devices in the form of Windows Intune. Educational pricing is not publicly described, but I have heard from colleagues that Intune licensing is "very affordable" for districts that already have volume licensing in place with Microsoft. This means not only can districts manage Surface tablets, but Windows laptops, and even district issued Windows, Android, and iPhone smartphones.

I don't know of any first party MDM solution from Apple, even in the new upcoming iOS 7 that is about to be released. I'm not entirely surprised, which is why I've previously penned about why I think the enterprise computing sector as a whole will never take up Apple as a Windows alternative in light of their reluctance to get serious about seamless and inexpensive management and security of devices they push.

#4: Lack of Staff Professional Development is Like Tossing Money Away

As the owner of a company that now consults school districts in their technology plans, I have zero patience for administrators that fail to see the importance of professional development when new tech is welcomed. My feelings have been hardened by first hand experience working in education and seeing how hopeless new tech initiatives were when the assumption that "if you provide it, they will learn."

Just laying claim to the fact that technology was purchased and dropped into classrooms doesn't make up for the negated fact that it will be next to useless without the correct training. Not only training, either; districts need to make concentrated efforts in championing not only the functional aspects of technical aptitude, but also the integrative possibilities with how instruction can be transformed through a digital paradigm.

Our schools have very successfully taught legions of students how to use Microsoft Word. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will have the intuition to leverage the software correctly towards meaningful content creation. The same dilemma exists when we are discussing 1:1 programs and the indiscriminate "dumping" of technologies on schools in the hopes that "spraying and praying" will solve all ills.

If teachers have a common understanding of where the technology is taking their instruction, the student body will only then be capable of being led by the next generation of instructors.

#3: Collaboration Should Be a Focus of Every 1:1 Plan

I know very well that younger students embrace tablets well because it fits into their individualized focus of self development at that age. But this point is markedly pinned on any districts going 1:1 who are home to middle school and especially high school students. Tablets like the iPad are great devices for a single end user. But in this world where teamwork and group interaction makes up a large majority of post-school work life, we should be preparing these older students for what will be expected of them post graduation.

If you look at the entire landscape of employment choices, very few industries exist that represent tablet heavy classrooms. Pick your poison, whether it be law, medicine, research, agriculture, high tech -- the people that make up these industries aren't selflessly perusing app stores and creating content which will be self contained. It boggles my mind to hear about high school districts expecting students to be college ready when they are placing iPads in their hands and wishing them the best.

Kids have a drive towards working together and creating content cohesively, not just alone. Collabration can't be an afterthought in making a concerted 1:1 computing plan for your district. Too many districts today are focused on how to make the case for costly "digital notebooks." (Image Source: Tabtimes.com)

While they come with their own flaws, Surface and Chromebook devices are much better suited towards building meaningful focus around knowledge through groups, sharing this wisdom, and leveraging everything the modern internet has to offer in curating experiences. iPads, Galaxy tablets, and such are nothing more than glorified digital notepads that double as eBook readers. If our only goal is to rid classrooms of printed textbooks, then the tablet-first approach solves this one goal well but little more.

The larger discussion of flipping classroom learning and creating purpose for the 1:1 environment goes a lot further than just saving a few trees (as noble as that is).

#2: Flipped Classrooms Are Here to Stay

I'm not the only one extolling the successes of the first generation of flipped classrooms in America. From principles, to teachers, all the way down to the students themselves. Not only is the quality of the education proving to be better, but accountability is becoming much more transparent and easier to gauage due to the inherent nature of the way technology is built into this new model from the ground up. Teachers' unions may be apprehensive about their feelings towards making the 'flip' but judging from what I have seen and read so far, this new teaching style is at the forefront of what tomorrow's classroom should be based on if tech is at its heart.

To this end, administrators who are signing off on 1:1 programs today without any second thoughts about how easy it will be for their students/teachers to engage in flipped classrooms are going to be behind the curve before their chosen tech even gets shipped out. Pilot programs today at K-12 districts should be either welcoming forethought into plans for flipping, or at the very least, observing how successful districts are making the move.

KhanAcademy has been a key player in much of the focus surrounding 1:1 flips around the nation, and Bill Gates has already put his respected dollar vote on this up and coming name. As screencasting technology becomes prevalent and seamless on new devices, I foresee KhanAcademy clones budding sooner rather than later.

#1: Stop Focusing on Consuming Content -- Producing It Matters Much More

If there's one big fault I place on the iPad-first approach to the K-12 tech mindset, it's that this device is placing consumption on such a high pedestal that organic production of content becomes forgotten. I argued this same point when I made the case for why the Microsoft Surface is much better suited for today's classroom than the iPad. There's something to be said for seeing a student engaged in learning by means of leveraging a cool app from the App Store. But seeing meaningful content produced, collaborated-on, and visually expressed in a classroom setting is every teacher's dream.

So why are we so entrenched in this belief that a single-function tablet is the savior to classroom learning? In the same brief I referenced earlier, Alan November quoted a to-be-unnamed district Superintendent that was brutally honest about the 1:1 landscape so far, from those he has encountered. “Horrible, horrible, horrible implementation from every program I visited. All of them were about the stuff, with a total lack of vision.”

Hybrid devices that combine the best of the tablet world and that of a traditional computing platform, namely the Chromebook and Surface, are ecosystems which will not place such a dis-balanced focus on consumption. Of course proper professional development and teacher engagement from the start are big keys to winning 1:1 programs, but districts moving students onto sole-purpose tablets are selfishly demeaning the engaged 21st century student.

Asking so little of our students by pigeonholing them into an incessant culture of App Store consumerism is nothing more than placing a toddler into a walled garden. Have all the fun you want -- but the boundaries aren't coming down. This is nothing more then robbing them of the intellectual growth possibilities we should instead be promoting. The bar is being raised all around them, whether we make the maneuvers necessary to prepare them or not.

Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist that owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over 8+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net.

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