By Jim Shimabukuro
Years ago, when I first began reading about a smartboard in every classroom and a laptop for every student, I was overjoyed. When the smartboards grew increasingly sophisticated and laptops morphed into netbooks then tablets, I was ecstatic. Yes, teachers and students were finally beginning to use some of the latest internet technology to breach the classroom walls and tap into the growing universe of online information, resources, and services.
The transformation was nothing short of miraculous. The electronic screens in classrooms became instant windows to a seemingly infinite wealth of not only information and knowledge but of experts and other human resources. Stepping through the electronic windows, teachers and students broke free from their tiny classrooms and soared into the new world of learning that transcended time and space barriers. Without moving an inch from their desks, they could, with a click, be anywhere and communicate with anyone in the world.
But as the trickle of technology into classrooms grew into a torrent and every day brought a flood of new announcements of schools and entire districts investing in smartboards, laptops, and iPads, I no longer found myself cheering. Now that we’re past the initial hurdle of simply getting the technology into the classroom, I’m beginning to pay attention to other factors, and some of what I’m seeing worries me.
For example, I’m becoming increasigly concerned about the hands in the cookie jar. I expect to see the hands of students and teachers — the intended recipients, the targets of the funding for new technology. However, I don’t expect to see other hands, especially when they’re grabbing a sizable portion of the cookies.
Mary Vorsino, a writer for Hawaii’s primary daily, the Star-Advertiser, reports that, according to the state Department of Education, “a plan to put a laptop in the hands of every public school student in the state will likely take a decade to roll out and is expected to cost about $50 million a year to sustain.”*
Vorsino says that the governor, Neil Abercrombie, “has asked lawmakers for about $1 million to jump-start the project. If approved this legislative session, that money would be used to equip 1,500 students with laptops as part of a pilot project.” She warns that “expanding the program will be far pricier. In peak implementation years … the program could cost as much as $63 million a year. Sustaining the program is expected to cost about $50 million a year for hardware, training, infrastructure, repairs and other items.”
Infrastructure — yes, definitely. Many schools have to be retrofitted for the new hardware as well as for broadband and wireless connections. Hardware — assuming that the reference is to laptops or tablets, it is, of course, a given. Repairs – when necessary, these are also a given. Training — this, however, worries me. According to Vorsino, “The chief information officer for the state Department of Education” claims that “the laptop program needs to be rolled out slowly because it requires intensive professional development for teachers. During the ramp-up of the program … about 40 percent of the funding for the program will probably go to teacher training.”
Forty percent of $50 million is $20 million — that’s $20 million dollars for teacher training alone. Infrastructure, repair, and “other items” costs are in addition to this figure. Without more information, we can’t determine what will actually be left for the laptops themselves, but a conservative estimate could place it at approximately half or less of the budget, which translates to $20-25 million.
Applying the state DOE figures to a hypothetical classroom of 20 students, the following breakdown might apply: $8,000 for laptops (at $400 each); $4,000 for infrastructure, repair, and other items; and $8,000 for teacher training. For a single school of 50 teachers, the teacher-training cost alone would be $400,000.
I’m not arguing that teacher training is unnecessary or useless, but I’m wondering, aloud, about the proposed model for training and about the possibility of less expensive or alternative models. I’m not sure what the exact plans are, but perhaps the most expensive would be a bureaucratic model that calls for the addition of or an expansion to an existing instructional technology (IT) department, which would mean the hiring of staff and the building or acquisition of offices and labs to manage training. This department would serve a complex or an entire district, depending on the size of the system. Of course, the staff would need equipment and other resources as well as an ongoing maintenance budget. With this model, we can quickly see why the training costs are so high.
Another model is outsourcing, or contracting a private sector company to conduct the training. Again, I’m not sure what the cost would be, but I’d guess that it would be less expensive in the long run than the bureaucratic model.
Perhaps the least expensive would be a bootstrap model that relies on the online medium itself, existing IT staff, and the teachers’ ability to update their skill levels on their own or together, in groups. For example, existing tech specialists would develop an interactive tutorial website and teachers would have the option to log in for instruction and training as needed. If the IT staff are skilled, they could develop multimedia modules to enhance the process. A prominent feature of the site would be a discussion forum for various skills levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced. Those who are advanced could serve as resources and moderators in these forums as well as informal mentors to less skilled colleagues. Relying on asynchronous approaches, teachers could participate in this training on their own time as part of their professional self-development or during prep periods. As the program develops into multiple years, the pool of highly skilled teachers will grow, further strengthening the bootstrapping.
The cost for this teacher training model? Almost nil if existing resources are used. Sustainability? Excellent. Effectiveness? Empowering for all concerned and, thus, excellent.
Further savings could be realized if schools offered students the option to bring their own laptops, netbooks, or tablets to class. This would be an extension of the bootstrap model, but geared for students. Their computers would have to meet certain minimal requirements, but these could be kept to a minimum so most computers would be suitable. There would be advantages to this approach. Students could opt for more powerful computers that could serve them in extracurricular activities. They could upgrade at their will. However, these students would be responsible for their own upgrades, repairs, and computer-specific apps. Furthermore, the IT department could set up help forums for a wide range of operating systems, models, brands, etc., and these could be run by volunteer student moderators for service credit.
Some may question the feasibility of this bring-your-own approach, but it’s probably the most natural. In fact, on college campuses where no formal campus-wide computer program is in place, students bring their own and manage quite well. I have a feeling the situation could also hold true for high schools and even lower grades where personal computers are allowed or even encouraged on campus and in classrooms.
In this student bootstrap model, funds could be made available for those who cannot afford to bring their own. Schools could give or loan computers, or provide vouchers for purchasing them. Of all the models, this — in conjunction with the teacher bootstrap model — is perhaps the least expensive, most sustainable, and most natural.
In this brief article, I don’t cover all the possible teacher-training models. I don’t think I have to. I’m confident that teachers are fully capable of developing models that best fit their own school, complex, or district needs. My purpose is to explore the idea that there is more than one way to achieve the one-laptop-per-student goal and that some approaches aren’t only possible but cost effective as well as sustainable.
* “School Laptop Project Has Pricey Goal,” 13 Feb. 2012.
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