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SPECIAL TECHNOLOGY REPORT: Lessons Learned from One-to-One

After nearly a decade of ambitious programs that put a laptop in the hands of every student, have they made any difference?
Jeff Hollan, a system analyst in the Lorain City (Ohio) School District, installs new software on the Acer laptops that the district is using in its one-to-one program.

When in 2002 Maine launched its pioneering Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) that equipped every one of the state's 30,000 seventh- and eighth-grade public school students and teachers with their own Apple iBook, all eyes were on the endeavor.

Spearheaded by then-governor Angus King, the program's stated goal, according to the 2001 document "Teaching and Learning for Tomorrow: A Learning Technology Plan for Maine's Future," was to "prepare young people to thrive in a world that doesn't exist yet, to grapple with problems and construct new knowledge which is barely visible to us today."

As the first statewide one-to-one deployment, MLTI's $37 million education experiment represented a grand-scale commitment to a controversial technology-centric approach to education. "We were honored to have been selected as one of the original pilot sites for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative," says Rich Abrams, superintendent of Maranacook (Maine) Area Schools. "It posed some new challenges that required us to be ‘out of the box' thinkers. We had some staff who were reluctant to be behind their students in this arena."

Abrams says students were "enthralled" with the technology and that it brought staff to a new level of learning and creativity, leading to such projects as student/teacher collaborative digital portfolios to help parents review their child's performance in what Abrams calls "student-led parent/ teacher conferences."

Within the next few years, states such as Texas and Michigan (see story, "Pioneering States in One-to-One Implementation," p. 42) followed Maine's lead with their own laptop initiatives. Tom Greaves, CEO of the Greaves Group—a partner with the Hayes Connection and the One to One Institute in the 2010 "Project Red" study, which isolated and analyzed elements of successful one-to-one implementations—says his best guess is that currently 3,000 schools across the nation are implementing one-to-one for students in grades 3 and up.

Results Inconclusive

For all the state-legislated initiatives, millions of dollars spent and ambitious goals of revolutionizing education, however, the overall impact of one-to-one programs in the last decade remains a bit unclear. Specific data tied to improved student outcomes on standardized tests remain elusive. A 2007 survey by the University of Southern Maine's Center for Education Policy, "The Impact of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative on Teachers, Students and Learning," found a correlation between one-to-one programs and state test scores difficult to determine, noting the limitations of standardized tests in evaluating technology-centric learning.

Mark Jamison of Pearson helps a student log in for the first time during the 2006 one-to-one launch at Coleman Junior High in the Coleman (Texas) Independent School District.

Early reports in Michigan, such as "Freedom to Learn: Michigan Students Unplugged" (2005) and "Michigan Freedom to Learn Program" (2007), found that schools across the state were showing higher student engagement, fewer suspensions and discipline problems, and in some places, significant increases in math and science scores as a result of the program. The state's Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District, for example, showed an increase in science scores on middle school standardized tests from 68 percent proficiency in 2002-2003 to 80 percent in 2003-2004, and an increase in math proficiency from 57 percent to 67 percent in the same time period. In the Chelsea (Mich.) School District, director of technology Scott Wooster oversees a 600-student one-to-one implementation at Beach Middle School begun in 2002.

Wooster says there have not been significant increases in standardized test scores, but he attributes that in part to the difficulty of improving on the 90 percent average proficiency rate the school maintains on the thrice-yearly Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) reading and math tests, and the annual Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). As well, he says, it's difficult to isolate the effect of the laptop from that of other initiatives, such as a reading apprenticeship program the school implemented in 2002.

Anecdotally, Wooster says he has seen many benefits for students, though, such as more time on task, stronger engagement in lessons, and more prolific student writing as measured by the generally increasing length of papers, projects and journal entries for English classes.

Ongoing Legacy

Will Richardson, District Administration columnist, blogger and co-owner of the technology professional development company Powerful Learning Practice, says the vast majority of one-to-one schools are still not fulfilling their potential. The problem, he says, is that aside from "islands" of innovation in Maine, Texas and a few other areas, schools are using one-to-one devices as nothing more than "glorified pencils." "There has to be a willingness to systemically re-envision the learning culture," says Richardson. "In most places, they're not even beginning to do this; instead, they're basically using the technology as a word processing tool."

Students work on their MacBooks at King Middle School in the Portland (Maine) Public Schools, provided as part of the statewide Maine Learning Technology Initiative launched in 2002.

Cathie Norris, professor in the Department of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas who, along with Elliot Soloway, professor at the University of Michigan's School of Education, co-authored a 2010 District Administration column titled "One-to-One Computing Has Failed Our Expectations," also expresses disappointment at the state of most programs, saying way too often the technology is viewed as an add-on and not central to the instructional process. "Instead of teachers changing lessons to take advantage of the technology, they're still too often using it only occasionally, and often just as a reward for students who've finished class work early."

According to Leslie Wilson, CEO of the One to One Institute in Michigan, founded in 2006 to support Freedom To Learn schools when funding for the program was cut under new state leadership, the legacy of these statewide programs has been to highlight the crucial importance of ongoing access to technology for all students. "Prior to those pioneering implementations, it was largely a hit-and-miss access to technology for kids, who might be scheduled into the computer lab once a week or once a month," says Wilson.

On a statewide level, the Maine laptop program remains the largest continued one-to-one deployment, despite a lack of clear evidence of results. "If you back away from the numbers, I think there are anecdotal ways of looking at success," according to Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director in the Maine Department of Education, noting that the state is in its third deployment of Apple iBooks. And this point is evidence that districts, the voting public, two governors and the state legislature all continue to support the program.

Keys to Success

Districts seeing results from one-to-one programs emphasize crucial factors that contribute to success. Since issuing laptops to all students in 2006, Coleman Junior High in the Coleman (Texas) Independent School District has seen seventh-grade reading proficiency on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) jump from 63 to 83 percent in 2010, and student proficiency on math scores has increased from 38 to 77 percent over the same four years.

Eighth-grade social studies proficiency also increased from 61 to 100 percent, and science proficiency from 53 to 83 percent during the same period. Technology teacher Sherri Merrill says that the keys to Coleman's success have been a lot of professional development, a supportive administration, a great technology department, and teachers who are willing to learn and share new things.

In the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District, where every child in grades 4 through 12 is issued a MacBook through the district's Digital Conversion program, evidence of success from implementation in the 2006-2007 school year to the 2009- 2010 school year includes increases in end-of-grade pass rates from 70 to 86 percent, in graduation rates from 77 to 86 percent, and in students attending college from 74 to 86 percent.

Students using laptops in class as part of the Chelsea (Mich.) School District?s one-to-one program at Beach Middle School begun in 2002.

Superintendent Mark Edwards points to a full year of weekly planning meetings and year-round professional development, including a summer institute, as essential to the success of the digital program. Ray Grogan is principal of Freeport Middle School in Regional School Unit No. 5, based in Freeport, Maine, where eighth-grade math scores on the state test rose from 50 percent proficiency in the 2001-2002 school year to over 90 percent in 2009-2010. "Dropping a laptop into a classroom does not change the learning for students," says Grogan, who says approaches to instruction must change too. "I have seen some laptops be paperweights. It takes a lot of professional development and pushing by the principal to change how the technology is being used."

At the Science Leadership Academy, a one-to-one Apple laptop magnet high school in the School District of Philadelphia that serves economically disadvantaged inner-city students, results of the program's first four-year graduating class include a 96 percent graduation rate, compared to the district's rate of 58 percent, and over 90 percent college enrollment, in contrast to the district's 34 percent.

The laptops are a crucial part of the school's emphasis on problem-based learning, says founding principal Chris Lehmann, and they enable students to solve real-world problems. "Kids ask serious questions and use the laptops to build learning artifacts— such as films, podcasts, blog entries and oral history interviews—that show the answers," he says. Lehmann believes that establishing common rubrics across grades and disciplines so all teachers are speaking a shared language of learning is a crucial component of success.

Affording One-to-One

Of course, given economic conditions, the costs of technology can dominate the discussion of one-to-one computing. For some districts, however, such programs can end up saving money. In the Lorain City (Ohio) Schools, Gary Brantley, chief information systems officer, found that issuing netbooks with digital textbook content to all students in grades 6-12 would be a more affordable solution than replacing printed math textbooks. Brantley says his initial savings of $140,000 in textbook purchases has blossomed into a broader district return on investment, as the laptops have enabled the use of free tools for e-mail and social networking, as well as applications like Google Docs and OpenOffice.

For many districts, however, even making the initial investment is not possible. "Rethinking how to get to a ubiquitous technology environment is critical in these tough economic times," says CoSN CEO Keith Kreuger, "and buying a device for every child is unscalable in most places."

This fact has driven the new trend of using student-owned devices—such as iPads, smartphones and MP3 players—known as "bring your own technology" (BYOT) or "bring your own device" (BYOD). This fall, for example, the Katy (Texas) Independent School District will allow students and staff to bring their own devices to school, and public Wi-Fi will be available in all 52 buildings. "We're trying to leverage parents' personal investments in technology," says CIO Lenny Shad.

Lessons for the Future

After more than a decade of implementations across the country, and on the brink of a transition into a BYOT/BYOD environment for many, what lessons do veteran school leaders have to share with administrators considering one-to-one programs in their districts?

Anita Givens, architect of Texas' Technology Immersion Pilot (TIP) and now associate commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), references findings of the program's 2010 progress report. "We learned that the complete package of content, technology, professional development and support was critical, but of equal importance was student access both at school and at home on a regular basis."

Richardson agrees, saying that when careful planning, implementation, infrastructure and professional development are in place, one-to-one programs show measurable gains. Edwards in Mooresville stresses developing a school culture of learning, and of building leadership capacity among staff members in order to take full advantage of a laptop program. "When teachers are successful, the morale of the entire school goes up," he says.

The "Project Red" study pinpoints nine strategies that are common to successful one-to-one programs, with the most important being daily technology use in intervention classes, strong change management leadership and regular online student collaboration. Grogan agrees that the right balance in leadership is crucial. "It takes both teacher support and pushing by the principal to change how the technology is being used. When you do one without the other, you don't move things forward."

Though data in pockets across the country show clear evidence of the positive impact of every student having a computing device, and although there remain challenges to the arrival of ubiquitous one-to-one environments, the trend overall is still in one direction. As Leslie Wilson puts it, "At this point, what district would want to go backward?"

Susan McLester is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.