Working closely with your vendor helps one-to-one success, says Kent (Wash.) School District's Greg Whiteman.

Apr 17 2008

Asking the Right Questions

Creating an RFP that's well thought out can help your school's one-to-one program long after the first shipment of computers is delivered.

Creating an RFP that’s well thought out can help your school’s one-to-one program long after the first shipment of computers is delivered.

Not sure if your district or school is ready to go one-to-one? Take this online assessment at

For a school considering the launch of a one-to-one notebook initiative, the request for proposals (RFP) probably seems like a minor, check-it-off-the-list moment in the process. Compared to the high-stakes effort of raising the necessary funds or ensuring buy-in from the school's administration and other stakeholders, bringing in bids from technology suppliers may seem like a prosaic task.

But a one-to-one program is much more than just giving a computer to each student. The RFP process is a critical opportunity to shape a successful initiative, one that truly changes instruction and helps create better educational outcomes for students. Decisions your team makes in the RFP can make a difference in outcomes, big and small.

“A lot of times, when you put something on paper, all the parameters of what you'll have is right there in black and white, [and] you have to answer to that,” says Stewart Crais, the director of technology and media services at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tenn. “The RFP gets everybody on the same page.”

Many computer companies are prepared to provide support throughout the initiative's operation. “One-to-one is so much more than just machines and repair,” says Luke Uetrecht, a business-development account executive in one-to-one computing for CDW•G. “We help promote conversations with other schools that have a one-to-one initiative. We do roundtables and events. We know best practices. We're ready to help with teaching and learning with the notebooks. With the RFP, we suggest you seek out a relationship.”

Seek a Partner

Part of the success of the Kent (Wash.) School District's three-year-old one-to-one program can be attributed to working closely with a vendor, says Greg Whiteman, district executive director of information technology. Kent Schools started with 90 machines in a tech academy for seventh graders at a middle school. Each of the past two years it has added classes, and the district is planning to deploy notebooks to all of its 2,000 seventh graders this fall. Whiteman says the relationship with the computer provider is so strong he's asked the company to share its development plans, to ensure that future models will work with what's currently offered.

“We view the vendor as a partner,” he says. “I look to see if they have a vision for K–12 education, that they won't just supply the equipment and leave.”

Many of the issues that can hinder a one-to-one initiative are relatively minor: If every student doesn't have a computer every day, a teacher can't depend on the notebooks when planning lessons, for example. Without the right software, new curriculum can be sidelined. Anticipate these kinds of hurdles in the RFP process. Every district has its own capacities and needs, so there's no one right answer. But experts agree you should at least consider these seven issues:

Repair: The RFP should require a clear outline of how the vendor will fix machines, including what will be covered under “normal use” and the turnaround time for repairs. Repair programs typically fall into three categories: onsite maintenance (which can be expensive), shipping to a serv­ice center, or a self-maintenance program, where staff is certified to complete repairs.

Float pool: You can't get away with buying exactly one machine for every student. What happens when one breaks? If the school will be maintaining the machines, you can buy as few as three extra notebooks per 100 in use; if your team can't respond to a problem daily, then consider an extra 12 to 15 per hundred.

Help desk: Many schools have a student-run help desk. The vendor can help plan how it should work and provide some best- practice models. One rule of thumb: If it takes more than 10 to 15 minutes to fix a machine, the student should be given a loaner.

Software: You might have an idea of exactly what programs you want for students, but you can also ask the vendor to suggest software, based on how you envision students using the machines. Avoid loading your notebooks with unnecessary programs, which add expense, distract students and slow performance.

Imaging: Most likely you want the computers to arrive ready-to-use, with all the software, links to school sites, etc., installed and ready to go.

Insurance: Many vendors don't provide insurance, so you might consider making this item optional. However, even if you can't find insurance from the supplier, think about pricing it out from another source – you may be surprised at how well kids will treat their very own notebook, but accidents (and sometimes theft) will happen.

Infrastructure: Most notebooks are expected to connect wirelessly. But are your schools' wireless networks ready for the addition of hundreds of new users? Does every classroom have a clear signal? You can ask your notebook provider to assess each school environment and structure the peripherals and connections accordingly.

These important issues are key considerations from the start, but the RFP can also help your district envision how a one-to-one initiative can change the way students learn.

“If the district is saying it just wants a one-to-one program and doesn't know what it wants to do with the machines, it's not ready for the RFP,” says Mike Muir, director of the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning at the University of Maine at Farmington, and a member of the design team for a statewide one-to-one initiative.

How Specific?

Muir suggests that a district, school or state shouldn't even include tech specs in its RFP. “When you focus on the equipment you want – the hard drive, the processor, the memory – then you inadvertently think of the initiative as a way to pass out technology. And we know that when the district sees this as a technology program, it fails,” he says. Instead, he suggests the district or school create a document that explains what the students should be able to accomplish with their notebooks, such as multimedia, research, word processing and online lessons, and let the vendor suggest what kind of machine can best meet those goals.

Some argue that such an approach can lead to an apples-versus-oranges set of proposals, making it difficult for the district to compare vendor packages. Even with an RFP that includes specific tech needs, the schools should have the use of the machines firmly in mind when crafting the request for proposals. “Ideally, the machines you buy are ready for education and are designed with the educational field in mind,” says Leslie Wilson, president of the nonprofit One-to-One Institute, based in Lansing, Mich.

Experts like Wilson also suggest including professional development for teachers and other educators in an RFP, and not just a notebook boot camp that shows everyone how to operate the computers, as important as that is. “Professional development really needs to be focused on one-to-one teaching and learning, which is very different than traditional teaching and learning,” she says.

Stay Flexible

Don't worry about crafting a perfect RFP. Once you've sent it out, expect to talk to interested suppliers before they put in a proposal. Many districts even create an addendum, based on input during the process, which alters or clarifies information in the original RFP. When you've got the proposals in hand, be prepared with a rubric to evaluate the choices, as well as the time and a plan to test the machines.

“We ask for 15 or so machines to give to students, teachers and center staff to use for a couple of weeks,” says Kent Schools' Whiteman. “We run it through its paces. We drop it – because that's going to happen. We test it on the wireless network. We run it [until] the battery is dead.”

With careful planning, your one-to-one program will help students of every ability learn more while at school. By thinking through how the program will unfold from the beginning, you're giving them every chance at success.

Little One-to-One

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte made headlines in 2005 when he unveiled plans to create a $100 notebook that could be distributed to children in developing countries. Today, that machine is finally available (although the price has risen to $200). And its arrival has led to the creation of other small, portable computers.

The XO notebook is designed and sold by Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child nonprofit group. Available to individual buyers in the United States for only two weeks at the end of last year, OLPC has kept sales open to U.S. schools, and several districts have already signed on. Birmingham (Ala.) City School District, for example, is buying 15,000 XO machines for its schools.

California's Fresno Unified School District is currently running a pilot initiative with the Asus Eee PC, which is a mere 7 inches wide and weighs 2 pounds. After a test period in 57 classrooms of students in grades two through 12, FUSD is planning to deploy 1,000 machines later this spring, with more to come in the fall.

“We wanted a small footprint so students can have the machine on their desk, along with a textbook,” says Kurt Madden, Fresno's chief technology officer. “We didn't feel like the CD drive was important, because there's so much available for wireless download, and the students keep track of their work primarily on a central storage system.”

Even after swapping the standard Linux operating system with Microsoft XP and adding in programs like Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the price comes to about $450 each, including imaging.

Do Your Homework

In the past seven years, Maine has handed out more than 36,000 notebooks to every seventh and eighth grader in the state (and their teachers). For more details about the program, visit mcmel-resources.

Michigan uses its one-to-one program to help create a system where every student can expect an individual education plan. The state pledged $37 million to start the Freedom to Learn project and the One-to-One Institute so educators can share resources and lessons from this initiative. For more, visit and