Students Deserve Take Home Tech

Portrait of little girl doing homework on laptop at evening

NPR’s Marketplace ran a well intentioned piece discussing model classrooms at the Oyler School in Cincinnati. It described classrooms full of technology but lamented the fact that few students had computers or connectivity at home.

We’ve known the answer to this question for 20 years, it’s take home technology.

In the mid-90s there were a couple dozen districts (including the one where I was superintendent) that piloted laptop programs where parents that could afford it rented a $2500 laptop. Subsidized and scholarship laptops were available for low-income families.

Now that web appliances are as little as $250 there is no excuse for not providing take home tech for every secondary student. To reach higher standards, we need kids to work harder, read and write more, and to take more ownership for their learning. That means take home tech for after school and summer learning.

Districts can pay for take home tech by ditching heavy, expensive and quickly out of date textbooks and adopting widely available and comprehensive open education resources (e.g., CK12, Curriki, Gooru, OpenEd and PowerMyLearning).

Even districts picking full feature Apple laptops have figured this out. As discussed in the Blended Learning Implementation Guide (BLIG), Mooresville Graded School District phased in laptops over several years at a total cost of about $200 per student per year despite being one of the lowest funded districts in North Carolina. Parents that can afford it pay the $50 insurance premium.

BYOD. Because the vast majority of secondary students bring their own device (BYOD) to school most districts have dropped their phone bans and allow teachers to decide when and how students can use phones in class.

Some districts have encouraged BYOD to boost access at school but as noted in the BLIG, “BYOD will improve student access, but it will not necessarily close the digital divide without a good plan. To ensure that every student has a device, BYOD should be combined with school-provided devices available for checkout and take-home use (with a parent-signed acceptable use form).”

Riverside USD was a pioneer in using BYOD to boost access. As a district administrator David Haglund told students, “Bring what you have, we’ll make sure you get what you need.” They checked out devices and made provisions for connectivity for students that lacked access at home.

Last year, Haglund became Deputy Superintendent in Santa Ana USD, a bigger denser poorer district. The first item he brought before the board was a redrafting of the district’s technology policies to allow BYOD and open access. While 80% of secondary students had phone, a large number did not have data plans on the phones. In response the district significantly expanded wireless access from 1 to 10 gigabytes per second. By fall, access will be 20 GPS by the fall to accommodate students who use more than one device during the day.

While a BYOD strategy works for some students, Haglund found it necessary to provision a wider distribution of district-owned devices than they did in Riverside. In the last year they have moved the district from a 5:1 to 2:1 with 1:1 in grades 5-9.

To boost home access the district is beginning to buy and distribute filtered wireless hot spots through the EveryoneON initiative ($10/month home access). One hot spot often covers multiple students. Haglund estimates that they will have about 4,000 of those hot spots in homes by December.

The district is also working with the city to increase open wireless access in public spaces and outfitting the exterior of the schools to broadcast filtered wireless access into the surrounding homes. Haglund hopes for a citywide wireless solution.

No snow days. Despite crazy winter weather, Meriden Connecticut students stayed on track last year with the use of online learning. The high schools made the conversion to 1:1 access and Chromebooks carts were deployed to the middle and elementary schools. Between district devices and BYOD, every student has good take home access to technology. The city and businesses have helped improve home access to wifi. The district holds an annual blended learning conference to share lessons learned.

Most districts in Iowa have 1:1 access. Smart EdTech procurement kicked off Houston’s Power Up initiative. Miami Dade went 1:1 with Windows tablets. All of the 25 School Districts Worth Visiting are on their way to solving the access problem.

There are few districts that face Santa Ana’s level of challenge with such low funding. For about $100 per year, every student can have take home tech. Given the opportunity to extend and personalize learning, there is simply no excuse for not providing take home tech, at least for students that don’t have access at home.

For more see:

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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