Oct 31 2006

A Computer for Every Child

Most schools recognize the benefit of a 1-to-1 student-computer ratio. But few realize the amount of work it entails, from teaching new instructional techniques to upgrading the technology infrastructure. Three schools that have accepted the challenge dis

Wylie Wong

JUSTIN SYMINGTON THINKS ONE-TO-ONE computing works. But that wasn’t always the case.

At first, having every child with a computer at his or her desk took some getting used to, but Symington, who teaches humanities at Miami’s Palmer Trinity School, adapted quickly and now incorporates technology into nearly all his lessons. Students surf the Web to conduct research. They build timelines using paint and word processing software. And, when they’re done with in-class assignments, they can turn them in via e-mail.


“We do plenty of traditional stuff, but the technology gives us the freedom to build a course that’s more interactive, dynamic and up-to-date,” Symington says. “When you give kids exercises where there’s creativity and control over their own work, the results are so much better.”


The concept of one computer per child, called one-to-one computing, is an educational experiment that’s becoming standard practice as schools adopt it throughout the nation. Proponents say one-to-one programs boost academic achievement by improving writing and reading test scores and get students more engaged in learning, which reduces tardiness and absenteeism and increases graduation rates.

This latest technology initiative moves beyond previous efforts in which schools built standalone computer labs or invested in mobile computer carts that teachers would borrow for class on occasion. With one-to-one computing, students are equipped with notebook computers, Tablet PCs or personal digital assistants, and they use them every school day. That approach encourages teachers to embrace technology and to overhaul their teaching methods.

Dealing With the Ripple Effect

Once schools commit to one-to-one computing, however, it creates a ripple effect that touches not only students and teachers, but also administrators and IT staff members, who must manage the program, provide professional development training to teachers and offer technical support to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of additional computers. Even parents aren’t immune. If their children attend private schools, they must buy or lease the computers.

But the benefits of the initiative far outweigh any drawbacks, school officials and IT staff members say, while admitting that it takes a lot of planning and hard work for it to succeed.

“There’s a huge learning curve,” explains Robert Lundgren, director of finance and operations at Palmer Trinity, a private school that requires middle school and high school students to own their own notebook PCs. “Every school that has started this program has had its bumps and bruises.

“The trick is to not reinvent the wheel. It’s important to talk to other schools and learn from their experiences.”

Palmer Trinity launched its one-to-one computer program about five years ago to ensure that its students developed the needed tech skills to succeed in their future careers.

Palmer Trinity students begin learning the basics of computers and Microsoft Office programs in sixth grade, so by the time they enter the eighth grade, they have mastered the fundamentals, Symington says. That allows teachers to take it to the next level by having students use certain applications, such as PowerPoint, to complete assignments. It’s no longer about learning the computer, but rather about building on their knowledge by incorporating various software applications to complete their assignments, he explains.

Palmer Trinity continues to be on the cutting edge and is considering whether to eliminate its print textbooks and have the students access them on their computers, either online or with CD-ROMs, Lundgren says. Online or CD versions of textbooks are updated frequently and offer students interactive features, such as video and audio.

And the movement is spreading. Three years ago, Maine spent about $37 million to equip 36,000 seventh-and eighth-grade students and teachers with notebook computers. So far, the program is successful: More than 80 percent of the teachers surveyed say that their students are more engaged in learning and produce better quality work, and more than 70 percent of the teachers say the computers have helped them meet curriculum requirements more effectively.

In the four years since Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia began giving notebook PCs to its 25,000 middle school and high school students, SAT scores have improved, dropout rates have plummeted and more graduates are attending college.

Last year, Texas began a pilot project in nearly two dozen middle schools. And this spring, Cobb County School District in Georgia is exploring whether to outfit 63,000 middle school and high school students and teachers with notebook computers.

In the future, handheld computers will be just another supply that children will bring to school, predicts Marcia Proctor, state technology planning coordinator for Texas’ Technology Planning and E-rate Support Center. “It will be no different than having a three-ring binder or a five-section spiral notebook,” Proctor says.

Investing in Training

For one-to-one computing to work, schools first need to sell the idea to teachers and to parents whose children attend private school because these two groups will feel the biggest impact: teachers from changes to classroom instruction methods and parents through their wallets, says Stewart Crais, the director of technology and media services for Lausanne Collegiate School. At this private school in Memphis, Tenn., parents are required to purchase notebook computers for their children.

“You have to prepare them and do a lot of public relations,” he cautions.

Schools also need to invest in ample professional development training for teachers, or else the effort will fail, Crais adds. His school provides in-house training for teachers, and also sends them to educational conferences.

At Palmer Trinity School, Symington understands that teachers initially may be hesitant about using computers as a teaching tool. But he says they need to keep an open mind and remember that one-to-one computing results in a better education for students.

“As teachers, we should not be afraid to try different teaching techniques,” Symington says. “We tell kids, ‘Don’t be afraid of failing, experimenting and going out on a limb.’ Teachers need to do the same thing.”

His advice to teachers is, “Don’t be afraid to jump in and do an Internet lesson. You might not have a great lesson the first time, but you can do it better the next time.”

Palmer Trinity, which offers teacher training several times a year, adds another incentive for faculty to integrate computers into their classes. Use of computers is now a part of teachers’ performance reviews, says Gus Sabogal, Palmer Trinity’s network administrator. “You can’t have a teacher who’s not willing to push the program, or else it won’t be effective,” he explains.

Participation Is Critical

IT departments must take part in the planning and decision-making process, Sabogal points out. When Palmer Trinity decided to implement its one-to-one project, the IT staff had to scramble in order to get the school’s technology infrastructure ready.

To handle the extra workload, the IT department increased the number of servers from three to 11 and built wireless networks throughout the school. Sabogal and his staff created user names and passwords for every student, along with e-mail addresses and network folders, so students can store their documents.

The school’s electrician even had to redesign classrooms because there weren’t enough electrical outlets in each room to handle the number of notebook computers, he recalls.

It’s important to make the computer program hassle-free for parents, adds Lundgren. To achieve that goal, Palmer Trinity manages the entire program, from selling and leasing the notebooks to repairing them when they break.

Before every school year, the school chooses a notebook to standardize on and negotiates the best deal available from the PC manufacturer. The school then buys the notebooks and resells or leases them to parents. A two-year lease costs about $1,800, including insurance for theft or damage, Lundgren says.

The IT staff sets up each computer before handing it over to a student, so everyone has the same package of software installed. The school also increased its IT staff from two to five people to handle repairs and provide help desk support.

“You need to provide a means to repair the computers,” Sabogal advises. “You can’t expect parents to take them to a repair shop on their own.”

Few Drawbacks, Many Gains

Palmer Trinity’s Symington does see a few drawbacks to having computers on every child’s desk. He’s developed a keen eye for catching kids who Web surf or instant message during class. And the wireless network sometimes goes down, forcing him to revamp his lesson to exclude Internet research.

“When the network is having issues, it slows everything up, but the headaches created by the system don’t come close to all the benefits you gain from it,” he says.

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Jones agrees. Her students at Liberty Magnet School in Sebastian, Fla., are on their notebook PCs every day, using Microsoft Office for in-class assignments and taking computer-based reading tests after they finish reading books.

“It has broadened everything as far as research and teaching them at an early age how to use spreadsheet and presentation software,” Jones says. “I really believe they’re getting a head start on everything.”

The biggest benefit, Palmer Trinity’s Sabogal says, is that students can take the computers home—making them a learning tool that’s always available.

“They can reach the entire world without restrictions,” Sabogal says. “They’re not limited by the hours of the school day or the four walls of the school building.”

This capability is vital to students, teachers and the school itself. “It's critical for us to be on the cutting edge of technology,” says Sean Murphy, head of Palmer Trinity School. “We prepare graduates to succeed at the university level and contribute positively to an ever-changing—and increasingly wired—world.”

Based in Phoenix, Wylie Wong is a tech writer who has written for Computerworld, Computer Reseller News and C-Net.

Success Stories

Lausanne Collegiate School: Private school in Memphis, Tenn.
Technology: 500 notebook computers, seventh- through 12th-grade students.
Funding: Parents buy or lease
Quotable: “The feedback we’re getting with recent grads is that using the notebooks has helped them tremendously with the demands of college.”
—Stewart Crais, director of technology

Liberty Magnet School: Public school in Sebastian, Fla.
Technology: Notebook computers for fourth- and fifth-grade students
Funding: School district funds
Quotable: “The projects they do are incredible. They do PowerPoint presentations and use the Internet. All the information is right there. Instead of going to the library and looking things up in the encyclopedia, they pull the computers out and start working.”
—Dale Klaus, principal

Palmer Trinity School: Private school in Miami
Technology: Notebook computers for students from middle school to high school
Funding: Parents buy or lease
Quotable: “When people visit the school, they’re surprised to see the kids sitting on the football field doing their homework on their notebooks. It was very strange for us in the beginning, too, but you get used to it. We don’t notice it anymore.”
—Gus Sabogal, network administrator

Seven Steps to Make One-to-One Computing a Success

Thinking about implementing one-to-one computing in your school? To make the program successful, you need solid planning and management skills, along with a big dose of patience. Here are seven points to remember:

1. Educate yourself. Call or visit other school districts and find out how they have implemented their one-to-one program.

2. Sell the idea to teachers and parents. Explain the educational benefits.

3. Budget money to pay for professional development training for teachers.

4. Include your IT department in the planning process. One-to-one computing requires technology investments that go beyond computers for children. The IT staff has to build wireless networks and upgrade the existing network to increase bandwidth. Consider hiring more IT employees to handle an increased need for help desk support.

5. Train students and parents how to use and handle the computers. Develop restrictive computer usage policies to prevent music downloads and game playing.

6. Buy insurance policies for the computers.

7. Give the program time to succeed. It won’t be perfect the first time out. You need to continually improve the program by working out the kinks.

Funding One-to-One Computing

One-to-one computing doesn’t come cheap. In addition to computers, schools must budget for computer training for teachers and students and additional IT costs to support the program.

In private schools, parents bear the brunt of the costs. At Miami’s Palmer Trinity School, parents either buy or lease computers for their children, and, as part of the tuition, they pay technology fees that help support the technology infrastructure.

Lausanne Collegiate School, a private school in Memphis, Tenn., has partnered with a local bank to offer parents a loan if they can’t afford to buy a notebook computer. Parents can pay off the loan monthly, says Stewart Crais, the school’s director of technology and media services. “We want to make sure it’s not a burden to families to have a notebook, and to make sure they all have them, because we use them so much in the classroom,” he explains.

In public education, school districts and individual schools that have developed one-to-one programs have relied on state funding, grants and their own school district funds. Political support helped Maine and Texas bankroll their projects. In Maine, a large budget surplus allowed the governor to persuade state legislators to finance its one-to-one program. In Texas, the state legislature approved legislation to create the pilot project.

Individual schools and school districts can also fund the effort themselves. When Liberty Magnet School in Sebastian, Fla., was built three years ago, school district officials set aside money from the district’s capital outlay and technology fund to buy notebook computers for each fourth- and fifth-grader, recalls Principal Dale Klaus.

Five years ago, when Marcia Proctor was IT director for the Rockdale Independent School District in Texas, she applied for and received about $600,000 in grants from the state to buy 500 computers for the district’s high school students and to provide professional development for teachers. The program paid immediate dividends as reading scores the next year went up 11 percentage points in standardized tests, she recalls.

Proctor, who now works for Texas’ Technology Planning and E-rate Support Center, advises districts to assemble a team to research funding opportunities—from voter-approved bond issues to private foundations. In Texas, for example, superintendents in Irving and Pleasanton implemented one-to-one notebook programs through innovative budgeting and local bond elections, while officials from the West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District funded a program through a local private foundation, Proctor says.

“Private funding sources are numerous,” she says. “But it takes a lot of research to find grant programs and a lot of time to write the applications.”