More often than not, when I ask school systems and principals about their approach to instructional technology, I hear one of two things. A victorious “We’re a 1-to-1 school!” Or a sheepish, “We’re not a 1-to-1 environment. We’re just not there yet.”
A 1-to-1 laptop or iPad roll out is not, however, a new instructional model. Yes, some sort of hardware is required to implement blended learning. And certainly some blended-learning models—like the Flex or Individual Rotation—lend themselves to ensuring that all students have computers or tablets at their fingertips throughout the day. But at face value, whether a student can or cannot carry a machine around all day tells us little to nothing about a school’s actual pedagogy, about the quality of interactions between students and teachers, or about the rigor of the software programs delivered through those devices. A 1-to-1 program in fact proves a poor bellwether of changes in student learning.
Why, then, do we continue to hear a clarion call for massive hardware procurement?
In part, 1-to-1 programs seem to gain greater political traction than funding less scintillating alterations to instructional models. Saying to parents—as a principal, school board member, or a mayor—that each child will have his own device probably wins you points. It carries with it an encouraging sentiment that we are finally “personalizing” something in an otherwise factory-based model of education. It suggests that your school is well equipped for 21st-century learning.
In fact, personalized learning rhetoric has even crept into discussions of hardware procurement. As one school board member, reflecting on LA Unified School District’s attempts to recover from a disastrous iPad roll out last year, told the LA Times, “Why would we treat all our students—whether they are a first-grader or a high school freshman—as if they all had the same technology needs? They don’t…. To have a one-device-fits-all approach does not make sense.” Though this may be the case, and LA Unified is noble to try to correct course, finding the right devices will only get schools part of the way to truly personalized learning. In fact, the real needs of students ought to be addressed by figuring out the right instructional models that best meet each student’s needs first, then purchasing devices that support that instructional model second.
School systems’ internal operations and processes likely don’t mitigate the 1-to-1 craze either. Silos remain strong between technology and instructional departments, which makes planning and implementing a well-oiled blended-learning model difficult. Technologists may be excellent at vetting for good devices and understanding the networking and maintenance required to keep those devices up and running. But to implement blended learning, technology departments need to understand the curricular needs of students and teachers and vice versa. As such, decisions to “give” teachers more devices tend to originate from the wrong starting place; teachers should be designing their classrooms and schools and then discussing, with leaders and technologists, what devices can best support that design.
So how can we start to ease up on the all-too-often misguided call for 1-to-1 programs?
First, politicians and school boards should embrace the fact that the greatest longer term wins in student outcomes are unlikely to come from new devices alone. To support effective blended learning, leaders should support more flexible budgeting processes that afford schools the chance for strategic decision-making: they can push schools to articulate new instructional models and then step in to fund those models with the right devices.
But doing so will not prove easy and likely requires that educators, vendors, and researchers alike do a better job of calculating the real cost of implementing blended learning. Right now, it’s difficult to perform cost-benefit analyses of different blended-learning expenditures—be those hardware, software, or training and planning dollars. Implementing an effective blended-learning program may require hiring outside help, visiting other school systems, or running semester- or year-long pilots to get teachers onboard. The time and money involved in these shifts, however, is not well articulated in the field.
Costs are equally difficult to compare across blended-learning models that stand to best support specific students’ needs in specific contexts. Perhaps your high school’s students would benefit more from a computer lab and a more robust catalogue of online course offerings than from a 1-to-1 laptop program? Perhaps implementing new software on your existing 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 devices will show greater gains in student outcomes than arming each student with his own device? Without good numbers to measure and compare these decisions, however, politicians and school board members may gravitate toward easier-to-measure line items like computers and tablets that parents and community members can actually see in their children’s hands.
Finally, schools need to change the way they operate to ensure that technology decisions are sufficiently integrated into instructional design. As we found in a recent report on software in schools, schools that are pursuing next gen learning models are making a concerted effort to break these silos down. Not only are technology and curriculum departments meeting more often, but schools are also looking to hire staff members with combined technology and instructional expertise. These individuals can buffer the tendency to think of hardware and curriculum as separate efforts within a single, student-focused system.
Julia Freeland is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This first appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog.