5 Strategies to Deliver Edtech Access to Every Student

Over the last few weeks I’ve participated in a number of conversations about student access strategies. It comes down to what device and who pays.

Considerations. Three pedagogical considerations drive my recommendations:

  1. Students should write a lot everyday and that still requires a keyboard
  2. Students should have 24/7/365 access to learning options; and
  3. A three-Screen Day would benefit multiple modes and settings.

Device. Round the clock access suggests a mobile device—either checked out to or owned by a student.

Writing a lot everyday suggests that a laptop or web appliance like a Chromebook benefits students—particularly secondary students.
A multiple-screen day suggests a high access environment that could be a mixture of personal and school owned devices.

Payment. There are four historical technology buyers: parents, school districts, and states.

Most U.S. households own at least one computer. In addition to home computers, some private school parents are required to purchase computers (or have tech built into the tuition.
U.S. school districts own more than 15 million computers (almost one for every three students) purchased in a variety of ways including tech and construction levies, year-end surpluses, grants, and occasionally through dedicated operating funds.
Maine is the only state to have made a line item commitment to personal portable student learning devices. Other states and the federal government have used grant programs to encourage expanded access.
There are some variations on these historical purchase patterns that appear promising.
State-District Partnerships. Because states need to have high access environments to facilitate online assessment in three years, they have reason to create access partnerships with districts. The access partnerships would be aided by a coordinated shift to digital instructional materials and consideration of open education resources.
Access partnerships could include a matching grant program. For example, if a state chief wants to enable a total spend of $250 per student and teacher per year, she/he may propose a combined budget that includes:

  • State contribution $75
  • District technology budget $75
  • State/district instructional materials budget $50
  • Other (assessment, PD, staffing) $50

Sliding-Scale Parent Contributions. A second strategy is subsidized parent purchases of an access device. This would involve a state or district consortia using their collective purchasing power to secure attractive pricing and potentially subsidizing it’s sale to parents. This approach will be prevalent in European and Asian countries with a history of parent purchased textbooks. Turkey and India will subsidize the widespread adoption of low cost parent purchased tablet computers.
Like Portugal’s 1:1 program, this could be done on a sliding scale with free devices for low-income students.
BYOD. A third strategy is to encourage students to bring their own device (BYOD) to school. At CUE last week, David Haglund from Riverside said they tell students, “Bring what you have, we’ll make sure you get what you need.” They check out devices and make provisions for connectivity for students that need additional help.
BYOD will result in a variety of screens, tech challenges, and use problems but it offers a cost effective way to dramatically increase school computing power. Updated acceptable use policies help, but BYOD mostly requires new practices and school cultures to be incorporated successfully.
High-access environments can be cost effective if created in a couple phases over the next few years by combine the following strategies:

  1. A state plan, built in conjunction with districts, to shift to online assessment, instructional materials and professional development
  2. A state contribution to expanded student access potentially structured as a matching grant program
  3. Subsidized parent purchases that leverage state purchasing power
  4. Reallocated district budgets that provide for technology refresh and tech support; and
  5. BYOD policies and practices.

These five strategies would be substantially aided by a weighted portable funding system that reflects student risk factors and follows the student to the best learning option (as outlined by Digital Learning Now!). These strategies could also be augmented by a new federal new E-Rate with broader acceptable uses focused on supporting the shift to personal digital learning.
Inexpensive devices, quality digital content, and productive school models makes it time for states and districts to plan the shift to digital learning. The introduction of online assessment over the next three years makes it a useful timeline for the shift.
State leadership is very important right now. Governors, chiefs, and edtech directors in every state need to be leading statewide conversations about the options described above. A combination of access strategies can and should be deployed over the new three years to ensure that every American student has fulltime access to high quality learning opportunities.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

John danner

Good piece on the device side tom, but the real cost is connectivity. The only great deal is the $10 per month for free meal qualifying students from the cable industry. But even for most low income schools, half of your students may not qualify. Prices for those kids may be 30/month or 360/yr dwarfing device costs. Connectivity is the big problem to solve in my opinion.


Tom Vander Ark

here's a comment from David Haglund, Riverside CA:
I agree that connectivity is an issue, but we can't afford to wait until a solution is clear to us. We must move forward and focus resources where most needed. Our strategy in RUSD includes three components and one overarching commitment.
1. We implement an Open Access policy that allows students to bring their own technology onto the school campus and use it in the learning process. No need to buy all students a device unless you require a specific device to be used. Two rules - Be device agnostic and only focus resources where they are needed.
2. We partner with the City of Riverside's Smart Riverside program. The city's wireless network is freely available to the majority of households we serve. The Digital Inclusion program provides a refurbished computer with wireless access, at no cost, to families that qualify for free or reduced lunch and participate in a parent computer training course taught by RUSD teachers.
3. We check out devices with imbedded 3G wireless access cards to students who do not qualify for the free computer via the Digital Inclusion project.
Partnerships between public agencies works when there is a common goal and commitment. Our public agencies understand the relationship between the mission of the schools and the viability of the economy in the community. We have worked hard to solve this problem and close the opportunity gap.

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