A Laptop for Every Student — It Doesn’t Have to Cost So Much

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Updated 6/15/15
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,1 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.
__________
1School Laptop Project Has Pricey Goal,” 13 Feb. 2012. (WebCite alternative)

8 Responses

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  3. Eight thousand dollars a year to train a teacher — each year! Cripes, the teacher would rather take a salary increase and pay for own training — at a much lower cost. Why do government programs always seem to end up with these insanities?

    With respect to the BYOD approach, you can try that in K-12, but the most needy areas would have to have lots of loaners and would not save that much. College is really very different in this respect.

    Yet, all of this discussion begs the true question. What will be put on those computers? What specific software will make the investment worthwhile? For a BYOD approach, the software cannot be platform-dependent. Will tablets be allowed? If so, the universe of learning software narrows considerably.

    I’m all for this idea from my business point of view. However, I’m not so sure that it will work from an educational standpoint. It’s not that it cannot work. It’s just that the management and coordination is very difficult.

    • Harry: Why do government programs always seem to end up with these insanities?

      Hi, Harry. Good question. My guess is apathy. People haven’t learned to care. In Hawaii, for example, I haven’t heard a peep. Mary Vorsino is an excellent journalist who covers education topics. She’s able to remain objective while spotlighting potential problems. Unfortunately, readers aren’t picking up on her cues.

      Harry: With respect to the BYOD approach, you can try that in K-12, but the most needy areas would have to have lots of loaners and would not save that much.

      I’m assuming that this will be the case. Still, substantial savings can be achieved by the bootstrap teacher training approach.

      Harry: What specific software will make the investment worthwhile? For a BYOD approach, the software cannot be platform-dependent. Will tablets be allowed? If so, the universe of learning software narrows considerably.

      Most if not all of the learning apps will be in the cloud so the primary software will be a robust browser. These are free for PC and Mac operating systems, and they’ll provide access to the web and all that’s there, including social networking services. Those who can’t afford MS Office have free alternatives such as Sun’s Open Office. Tablets such as iPad and others running the Android OS are quite robust in running web apps.

      I’m not so sure that it will work from an educational standpoint. It’s not that it cannot work. It’s just that the management and coordination is very difficult.

      Good point, Harry. However, if we think of laptops or tablets as media rather than content, much of the confusion disappears. Just as the brand of a sheet of paper or pencil doesn’t matter as long as a student can use them to write an essay, the brand and OS of computers may not matter as long as students can use them to access the web and cloud apps. In other words, how they arrive at a URL doesn’t matter as long as they get there.

  4. I could not agree with you more! Laptops for every student SOUNDS theoretically exciting and innovative. Until you begin to ask all the ugly questions. When so many teachers can barely log into their computers to help children when they need assistance with, say, Pearson websites, how can one help with a said “laptop issue”? My own laptop has its own issues almost weekly, and my husband and I simply guess about what to do. When I think of how I may handle such issues with 30 students within a room for 3 0r 4 periods…. it becomes a daymare! (get it?)

    I also have to be completely frank. I cannot fathom how we would make it happen. I am in Clinical Practice, so I must be 100% honest in saying that I am not yet a full fledge teacher. I have, however, been in a classroom now for the past 2 years ( a new school every semester). And they have each been low-income. I am proud of my calling and glad to go to work each day, but the reality is that these kids do not all get books, do not all have supplies, and some only eat at school. Are these kids who do not have paper really going to get computers? They do not now have enough for one class to go to a computer lab and some schools do not have labs. It is a sad reality.

    I feel the idea of students bringing them from home and paying for their own upgrades would only enhance the technology gap. It is something we should consider as educators. Not bringing the wealthy down, but how to help the low income to catch up.

    • Hi, DeLicia. First, I want to thank you for taking the time to post your candid comments. Hearing from teachers in the field is critical, and the points you make must be addressed as technology sweeps into our nation’s schools. Here are my responses to some of your comments:

      DeLicia: When so many teachers can barely log into their computers to help children when they need assistance with, say, Pearson websites, how can one help with a said “laptop issue”?

      I think it’s important that teachers focus on the positive rather than the negative and, to use an old saw, view the cup as half full rather than half empty. The fact that the teachers have computers in the first place and are actually trying to use them in instruction is a good sign. Just getting logged in is often a battle, even for seasoned online teachers. However, the fault is not with the teachers but with the so-called information technology experts who set up the roadblock without, first, testing the process.

      I’m sure that the vast majority of teachers have their own laptops and routinely go online to read and write email, google for information, and participate, as you’re doing, in forums such as this to post comments. And many of these have iPhones and iPads (or their equivalents) and use them regularly for personal communications. They didn’t have to attend classes and workshops to learn how to use these. They could use the text manuals, but, more than likely, they went online for the info they needed for these and other gadgets such as digital TVs, cameras, iPods, Blu-ray players, etc.

      The point is that, as 21st century citizens, we’re already wired to learn independently via the internet but we hesitate to take this orientation into the classroom. Yes, any new application or service will present a challenge, at first, but with repeated use, the barriers disappear. In a very fundamental way, isn’t this what learning is all about? Facing new challenges and overcoming them?

      DeLicia: My own laptop has its own issues almost weekly, and my husband and I simply guess about what to do. When I think of how I may handle such issues with 30 students within a room for 3 0r 4 periods…. it becomes a daymare! (get it?)

      “Guess[ing] about what to do” is the trait of a seasoned 21st century learner. It probably describes the process used by most who are considered technology savvy. When faced with the unknown, you bank on past experience and try different approaches. Eventually, we get it right. Again, this difficulty isn’t always the user’s fault. It’s often an indication that the designers of the technology or apps have failed. The best designs are ultimately intuitive, relying on the guessing that you mention. The less instruction the user needs, the better the design.

      In the classroom, I believe this is the most important lesson that we need to share with students: Not to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by technology issues but to confront and solve them. Modeling this behavior with students will give them the confidence they’ll need to thrive in the digital century. For example, in a class of 30 students, we can usually pinpoint one or two problems that are troubling the majority. We could address these, first, before trying to tackle individual problems. Furthermore, if we invite students to participate in the problem-solving, they’ll often come up with solutions that have eluded us.

      There are many ways to orient students to technology, and often fun and game activities are great openers. Students are instrinsically motivated to learn, alone or via classmates, how to get started and begin to play. This could transfer to learning how to log on to their computers and designated apps. Also, we shouldn’t forget that many students are tech literate — but not necessarily in the activities that we place before them. Thus, they, too, can “guess” their way through problems.

      DeLicia: The reality is that these kids [from “low-income” families] do not all get books, do not all have supplies, and some only eat at school. Are these kids who do not have paper really going to get computers? They do not now have enough for one class to go to a computer lab and some schools do not have labs. It is a sad reality.

      I agree. It is sad. But this is precisely why we need to abandon one-size-fits-all solutions that cost so much that they can never be implemented — or if they are, then they can’t be sustained. With more sensible cost-effective approaches, we’ll have more funds available for the kinds of schools that you mention. The current feast or famine model ensures that the digital divide will continue and widen. Simply dumping money on the problem isn’t going to work. We are in desperate need of approaches that will allow us to use technology dollars wisely.

  5. Education is ONLY now learning the meaning of “Total Cost of Ownership”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_cost_of_ownership

    Surely, it has experience from other assets it owns, e.g. buildings, BUT that has been fraught with INefficiency AND “corruption” as well, isn’t it? :-(

  6. i am happy with new release computer that has many feature installed inside. but i doesn’t make me happy when the education need to take more expensive when 1 student must have laptop. in my town kediri-indonesia there are favorite public school that has policy a new student who pass exam to enter the school must have a laptop.
    the problem is the parent are not the same. they have different budget. so not all student will have the opportunity to have laptop. and that’s make social jealousy.

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