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WirelessEdTech Conference (Pt 2)

This is part 2 of my coverage of WirelessEdTech 2011, a conference I attended in DC on 21 October. Part 1 can be fond here.

The afternoon was broken up into multiple sessions, and while I didn’t attend all of them (they weren’t interesting or relevant to this blog) I did attend a couple. I also spoke to various people at lunch. I talked to people involved in 3 different 1:1 programs, and it was a fascinating conversation.

None of the programs were focused on ereaders. All used either laptops or other devices.

Update: Early Monday morning I remembered a post I had read some months back. it covered the cost of a 1:1 program based on OLPC laptops. The costs aren’t the same, but it does provide a different perspective on these deployments.

The first I want to mention is also the one that I know the least about.  I happened to sit at the same table as a couple teachers from Alexandria. They told me a detail or 2 about the Alexandria City Public School technology plan. This was lunch, so I couldn’t pump them for as much information as I wanted but I still learned something.  The ACPS have been running a 1 to 1 in their high schools for a few years now.  In this case, it means that they’ve been issuing laptops to all high school students, teachers, and administrators. They’re also distributing computers at lower grade levels, but it’s a 3:1 ratio in the middle school, and in primary school the ratio is even higher. I suspect that cost is the primary driver of the higher ratios.

The ACPS teachers also told me that they’re using NookStudy, B&N’s textboo reading app. They agreed that it really was a great tool for digital textbooks. They also liked the Blackboard integration, but they felt that NookStudy was missing a key feature. They wanted some way for teachers to offer their own digital bookshelves from inside NookStudy. For example, an Engish Lit class can be based entirely on pd works and that means that a teacher can manage a collection of ebooks used in the class – assuming the teacher has the right tool.  Yes, you could set up the bookshelf on a website or inside an ebook, but that’s not the same thing.

One other interesting detail was that the teachers I met were trying to get the laptops' software filter changed (or removed, hopefully). It’s set to block Youtube, and that means that when students take the laptop home they can’t watch educational resources like Khan Academy.

The next 1:1 program comes from Osseo Area School District in Minnesota. They first tried a laptop based program 2004 but couldn’t move beyond the pilot because it simply cost too much. Money was pretty much why they adopted a BYOD (bring your own device) program.

The program is in its 3rd year and it continues to grow organically. Classes are added to the program when a teacher feels comfortable with the idea. While this limits growth, it also self-selects for enthusiasm, and that means greater dedication on the part of the teachers and greater effectiveness. The OASD are focusing their funds on building a wireless network that covers all 30 school sites. Right now they’re working on getting all the rooms covered, and will try to focus on building network capacity later (so students can do more and share more).

The downside of a BYOD device is that the heterogeneous nature of any classroom will tend to limit the work you can accomplish, but more importantly a BYOD program is not actually cheaper. It merely moves the cost from the tax base to the parents' pockets. All this program did was move the expense out into the community.  A traditional program would likely have cost less and also been integrated better. I’m told that they’re hoping to get more funding in the coming fiscal years so they can switchover.

And then there’s the 1:1 program in Maine. This is the one that I teased you about on Thursday, and it’s a strong argument for state-level programs.

The Maine Department of Education have been organizing a 1 to 1 program for some time now. Over the last 9 years they’ve been expanding the program from  a pilot which covered 7/8 grades to one that issues a laptop to every student. It’s now up to about 110 thousand students participating out of a total of 200k enrolled students (according to their website). The eventual goal is to include everyone and have around 350k devices in the classroom.

Because Maine negotiated this on the state level, they were able to get an enormous discount. Their costs are $242 per year, per student. And that’s the end to end cost for all of the infrastructure, warranty, service, and so on.

Let’s put that cost into perspective. Google will rent Chromebooks to schools at $20 a month.  But the $240 yearly cost only covers the device, not the network and other costs. In particular, it won’t cover the bandwidth a school would need because Chromebooks don’t function well offline.

Maine learned a lot as the program grew. For example, the best way to pitch the cost was to remind everyone that they spent more on heating costs – by a significant factor, in fact. Maine also built a statewide broadband network to support the 1:1 program, and they learned early on that students need to take the laptop home, which is why all students in grades 7 and up do so. Also, a student should never be deprived  of a laptop for more than 24 hours. It impairs their ability to learn.

One last thing: the Maine Program is based on Macbooks, and before that it was based on iBooks. They went with Apple products because it was the best offer at the time. And they’re not using iPads (yet) because the current contract was signed before 2010. The contract is coming up again in te next couple years so that might change.

As I look back at this post, I can see that it isn’t all that relevant for an ereader blog. But I did find it to be a learning experience. The academic gadget market is incredibly different from the consumer market, and the goals and needs are clearly affecting the hardware choices.

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