The best thing to happen to one-to-one computing this year was Cobb County. Sure, almost every single part of the program went wrong, but that's precisely my point.
Let me backtrack and cover the basics before I explain. Georgia's Cobb County School District has more than 100,000 students in 110 schools. In 2003, it passed a sales tax referendum to bring in about $70 million to update the district's technology. Officials created the Power to Learn initiative, and intended to buy 63,000 laptops to give to teachers and students in grades 6-12. After choosing Apple computers, the district started buying more than 7,000 laptops. When someone complained about the bid process, the school board requested an investigation. In July, a Superior Court judge stopped the program. The next month, Superintendent of Schools Joseph Redden resigned, and now a Grand Jury may investigate the bidding process.
So when most people, including our own columnist last month ("Laptop Woes," Gary Stager, Oct. 2005), think this is a major step back for school technology programs, why do I see it differently?
While I agree Cobb County's experience will make it more difficult for other districts to implement similar programs, I think it should be harder to start these programs.
Leaving aside the politics and potential bid rigging in Cobb County, from what I read the district never made a strong case for the educational value of this program. Sure Virginia's Henrico County Schools has run a one-to-one program for years, but that doesn't mean every district should. Cobb County's Power to Learn initiative talked about incremental gains in teachers' use of computers, a modest boost in students looking up information on the Internet and other mundane benefits. It also allowed students to opt-out of using a laptop, as if the machine itself were a controversial health curriculum that could be declined.
Kathy Thomas, Dell's manager of education strategy, helped me put the whole one-to-one rush in perspective. She often finds herself before school officials talking about Request for Proposals for laptop programs. And while Dell tried to land the Cobb County contract and recently wrestled the Henrico County contract from Apple, she said too often school districts are in copycat mode. Some of the RFPs that she has responded to are exact copies of Henrico's program, down to the typos in the document.
She said every district thinking about implementing a one-to-one program should at least be able to answer two questions: What do you want to accomplish with this program? How will you be able to measure its success?
When the response to the first question is "We want to give each student a computer," it tells her the district leaders haven't thought enough about how they plan to use computers when they get them. Not to mention that they haven't come up with a plan for how to manage such a large program, how to deliver support and training for both teachers and students or even how to address something as routine as battery life issues.
So while I believe these types of programs are needed in districts, and agree with Gary Stager that if properly presented it would be easy to gain parental support, any district that doesn't articulate its plans should head back to the drawing board.