Professional Learning

A One-to-One Future: The Promise of a Computer for Every Student

Ubiquitous technology is essential, and here’s proof it works.

February 1, 2007
Credit: Tom Greaves
Note: Guest columnist Tom Greaves, chairman of the Greaves Group, has worked for over three decades in the field of educational technology. This article, which originally appeared the Strategic News Service newsletter, will run in two installments over the next two weeks. Milton Chen's regular bimonthly column will resume on November 29.

Throughout the world, one of the deepest wishes of parents is that their children be well educated. From culture to culture, people are aware of the strong connection between a good education and future success -- both for individuals and for nations.

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Education's 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" highlighted the link between educational performance and the nation's well-being. In the twenty-three years since, concerns about education have consistently found their way into the top three opinion-poll categories -- along with war and the economy -- and government has increased the funding for education at twice the rate of inflation.

Despite the increase in funding and attention, the headlines about educational achievement in the United States have remained remarkably consistent (an example from USA Today last August: "Scores for Expanded SAT Show Largest Dip Since 1975"). Massive federal initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act and comparable statewide initiatives have shown only modest academic gains at best.

Even where small improvements have been made, many experts believe we are measuring the wrong skills. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, "These metrics fail to meet the demands of a global economy that's become increasingly competitive." Politicians are devouring Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat because of a growing awareness of our changing role in the world economy.

Our students are catching on. A few years ago, when English as a Second Language (ESL) was becoming a huge trend, I predicted that, as American students struggled to fit into the world economy, "Chinese as a Second Language" would likewise become a trend. Today, superintendents are reporting that Advanced Placement Chinese is the fastest-growing course category.

Why Is Technology a Preferred Solution?

The problem of lagging educational achievement is complex. To address the problem on many fronts, the most powerful change agents are needed. Though various solutions are possible, many schools, for numerous reasons, are turning to technology.

First, a large-scale technology initiative can be a powerful change agent in its own right. Second, educational technology in its more advanced form -- a computing device for every student (ubiquitous, or one-to-one, computing) -- has been shown to improve student and teacher productivity. Third, technology provides students with the skills that have become a necessity in the twenty-first-century workplace.

The ubiquitous-computing movement has attracted a lot of interest, both positive and negative. Just over three years ago, Strategic News Service's Mark Anderson founded Project Inkwell, devoted to the acceleration of student-appropriate ubiquitous computing and the development of a reference design for the "Inkwell device," to be licensed to member original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Also on the positive side are educators who have implemented one-to-one computing and know from experience that it has improved learning in their classrooms, as well as supporters who believe in ubiquitous computing but have little first-hand knowledge. Skeptics tend to await more evidence about hard data and results, or contend that funds would be better spent on fixing leaky roofs or reducing class size. Until now, much of the evidence on both sides has been anecdotal or based on very small sample sizes.

America's Digital Schools 2006

In 2006, the Greaves Group and the Hayes Connection joined forces on a major syndicated research study titled "America's Digital Schools (ADS) 2006," which 2,500 of the nation's largest school districts were invited to participate in. More than 900 people representing three constituencies -- superintendents, curriculum directors, and technology directors -- responded.

The survey probed more than 200 areas and gathered baseline data, as well as forecasts through 2011. What did we learn?

1) Digital schools are transitioning from a desktop world to a mobile world.

Not long ago, very few schools had a large number of laptop computers. "ADS 2006" indicates that 19 percent of all student devices today are mobile, and that half will be mobile in 2011. It is noteworthy that schools rarely change at such a rapid rate. Also, because these figures represent the installed base, current-year sales numbers will be even more tilted toward mobile solutions.

Interestingly, new technologies have emerged as drivers for this shift identified by "ADS 2006." An example is the reuse of the LCD panel in consumer portable DVD players, which cuts the cost of the display -- the most expensive item in the system -- by more than half. A few instances of efforts to provide lower-cost student devices are the One Laptop Per Child project (headed by MIT Media Laboratory head Nicholas Negroponte), the Intel Eduwise laptop, the AlphaSmart Neo, the Fourier Systems Nova5000, and the Microsoft Ultra-Mobile PC.

As educators select mobile technologies, the potential for real and sustained pedagogical change in the classroom greatly increases. When every student and every teacher has a computing device, instead of doing old things in new ways, schools start to do new things.

Ubiquitous computing "mobilizes" the curriculum. For example, the technology can reduce or eliminate the barriers of time, distance, availability, and cost of information. Teachers and school libraries used to be the sources of most information, but now students have access to a huge number of high-quality resources and primary source material via the Internet. The school library, containing 5,000 or 10,000 books, with an average book age of ten years, is replaced by the Library of Congress, which has more than 5 million multimedia objects.

The move to mobile computing is not without its challenges. Physical and electronic security, network infrastructure, bandwidth, teacher professional development, and appropriate online-curriculum materials are among the concerns that need to be addressed in the implementation of the one-to-one classroom.

2) Ubiquitous computing is growing rapidly.

One-to-one computing is closely connected to the influx of mobile technologies. When every teacher and every student has a computing device, results are very different from temporary one-to-one solutions, such as those provided by computer carts.

For those not in the industry, a popular way to deploy laptops is via COWs (computers on wheels). A COW is a large cart that secures three or so laptops, allows them to be moved from room to room, and charges them at night. One educational issue with carts is that they are merely a variant of the old computer lab, except that the lab comes to the classroom. In most cases, actual average time a student spends on the computer is measured in minutes per week. A larger issue is that students don't have the technology when they need it and don't feel any ownership of the technology. As an analogy, consider the difference in usage, ownership, and applications between a pay phone model and a cell phone model.

In 2003, Quality Education Data (QED) reported that 4 percent of U.S. school districts had started implementing one-to-one computing. "ADS 2006" indicates that more than one-fourth of school districts are now transitioning to this model -- a large jump in a market known to take a cautious view of change. (To qualify for this category, the minimum deployment of mobile technologies is defined as all the students in at least one grade level at one school in the district.)

3) Ubiquitous computing increases student engagement.

In the view of many observers, the key to successful ubiquitous computing is the ownership factor. When students take ownership (whether or not literally) of the student device, download their music on it, slap their stickers on the case, and take it with them everywhere, good things happen. They write more, they read more, they find out more, and they perform better in real-world tasks as well as on standardized tests. As one seventh grader said, "I love my computer. It's part of the family, actually." A sixth-grade student said, "Now I can find out the answer to any question. Before, most of the time I couldn't find the answer."

In a properly implemented environment of one-to-one computing, students are much more engaged in the learning process. Attendance goes up, and disciplinary actions go down. In one inner city middle school with one-to-one computing in place, the number of police actions dropped from three a day to less than one per week. The school was able to escape the "failing-school" label for the first time.

Check back next week for part two of this column, in which I'll discuss professional development, bandwidth, and the hurdle of Adequate Yearly Progress.
Tom Greaves is chairman of the Greaves Group, has been the CEO of two educational companies, and has served on the boards of many others.

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