We implemented a 1:1 pilot in eleven school weeks. We didn't set out to change the world. We didn't set out to change the school. We didn't set out to change the teachers. We set out to put more power in students’ and teachers’ hands right then. This post is a brief history of why and how we did it.
When 1:1 programs first started in the 1980s, most schools went through a multi-year process with many stakeholders before even purchasing the first computer. At the time, they had good academic, technical, and financial reasons for doing so.
Academically, schools had to answer the question of how having these computers would enrich student learning. In the 1980s, when a few Australian schools began the programs, no World Wide Web existed, the Internet was primarily in the U.S. connecting universities and government research centers, and almost no research existed on the benefits of 1:1 programs. Instead, forward thinkers like Alan Kay and Seymour Papert were putting forth ideas about how computers and technology rich learning environments could enhance learning for students.
Technically, schools had to install infrastructure and design how data would move between the computers and where ever else it was needed, with sneakernet (physically carrying a floppy disk from one computer to the other) frequently being part of the solution.
Financially, with computers being much more expensive and no infrastructure in place in the buildings, schools had to budget substantial funds to buy all of the computers and wire the buildings. Public schools had to convince the government that this was a good idea; private schools had to convince parents to dig deeper.
These were big projects that had to take several years from concept to pilot.
As the years went on, more schools started implementing 1:1 programs and more research became available that showed the benefits of 1:1 when used effectively. However, the implementation process at these schools followed the same model of a multi-year concept-to-pilot period because they still had to address many of the original questions.
All of these 1:1 programs did have one feature in common: the school specified all computers, hardware, and software, and locked down the computers. They did this for good reason as all software had to be installed on the computer, as hard as that is to believe in this day, and software could not be depended on to work reliably on computers that schools had not fully tested. And the issues of different platforms, such as Macintosh and Windows? Don't even go there–a school had to choose one or the other. Parents were then asked to buy these "special" (and expensive) computers, either directly or through a tuition increase or assessment.
A few of the challenges schools had to overcome before they could start a pilot were to explain benefits, teach technology skills, overcome negative attitudes, and develop infrastructure.
Benefits: Schools had to educate teachers, parents, and administrators about the potential benefits to student learning, and they had to help teachers develop appropriate pedagogy in their classes.
Skills: Schools had to invest significant time and effort teaching technology skills to the teachers. They had to teach things like, well, how to log in. And how to find files. And how to check email. And how to use a word processor (Wordstar anyone?). And then as time went on, they could start on more complex things, such as how to use an Internet browser. While this may be another one of those "hard to believe" things today, we must remember that these were brand new skills to most people.
Attitudes: Many teachers, hardly ever having a chance to use any technology, and finding it buggy and inscrutable when first introduced by the geekorati, believed that using "technology" in the classroom was a time waster. Many parents believed that using technology was equivalent to playing and that students wouldn't get a real education with computers in the classroom. And even many parents who agreed that technology used in school could be good were put off by the direct expense of having to pay for the school-specified computer that didn't match anything they already used.
Infrastructure: The infrastructure needed significant and costly work to support a 1:1 program, yet instead of one predominant network type as we have today, technology staff had to select from one of several types, and computers had to be matched the chosen network.
While schools had to overcome all of these issues, they were primarily trying to justify the cost. And to justify the cost, schools had to show benefits from how the program would affect teaching and learning. And to show benefits from how the program would affect teaching and learning, schools had to open up their curriculum and teaching to scrutiny within their community. What many people thought was a "laptop" discussion was really a discussion about what teaching and learning looked like, and what it should look like in the future. These were hard discussions that always take a while to resolve as the end result would be to transform teaching. And schools still had to convince parents to spend the money for infrastructure and for the expense of buying a brand new computer.
Fast-forward to September of 2009. The Graded Middle School had a problem. In spite of rich technology resources, which include three mobile computer labs and access to three fixed computer labs, the resources were not rich enough. Demand among teachers was so high that they had trouble scheduling time as often as necessary with their classes. The middle school principal, academic technology coordinator, and the director of information and communication technology (that's me), had discussed several times how we could solve the problem of teacher demand exceeding the supply. Buying more, more, more! was not responsible or feasible. From these discussions arose the possibility of a 1:1 pilot program.
We discussed how conditions in the middle school were different from conditions when 1:1 programs were introduced in the 1980’s, and in many cases different from other schools today. Several key differences–computer commodification, teacher acceptance of the value of integration, expansive software compatibility, infrastructure readiness, and parent connectedness–were differences we discussed in depth:
Computers had become commodities. Every Graded family had at least one computer, with most having two or more, and most high school students having their own. Some students already brought their computers to school, and others just connected with their smart phones. Data collected by the Graded ICT department in early 2008 showed that about 35% of sixth grade students had their own laptop at home.
Our middle school teachers had few questions about the value of integration. Most teachers were routinely using technology in their lives and, more importantly for our purposes, with their classes. The demand for resources indicated how teachers valued use with their classes. Many teachers knew how technology integration helped their students, not only by using the resources with their students, but also from their own professional growth. The predominant question in the middle school was no longer whether integration was valuable, but how best to do it.
Open source and the cloud had arrived, effectively eliminating software compatibility issues. Proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office, was no longer the only way to be productive, and most useful open source packages were platform independent, running on Macintosh, Windows PC, and Linux. For cloud-based applications, the device used was almost immaterial as Internet access and a compatible browser were all that were needed. Very few of these open source and cloud applications required specialized hardware and software, and certainly none was needed for most of what our students were doing in classes.
The infrastructure was ready. During the past few years, Graded had funded an extensive infrastructure upgrade to properly support teachers' use of technology with their students. This same infrastructure could support 1:1.
Parents were more connected personally and many were working for connected companies who actively expected employees to use technology and social networking tools within the organization.
We knew that most beginning 1:1 programs were still following a multi-year process, but we also knew that much of that time was driven by two key issues: the need to develop funding for both infrastructure and volume purchases of student computers and licenses, and by the in-depth examination of teaching and learning to build acceptance of technology in the classroom. We knew our infrastructure was ready, so what if we didn't need to buy computers or licenses? What if we used open source software that runs on the major platforms (Macintosh, Windows, and Linux) or in the cloud only using a browser? Platform wouldn't matter and students could use their own devices–and they didn't even have to be new devices. Our funding requirements for a pilot project essentially disappeared.
That left the question of examining teaching and learning and whether it was an essential precursor to a pilot. We had three thoughts. First, many of our middle school teachers were comfortable with integrating technology resources in their classrooms. Second, many of those same teachers had reached the limit of what they could do with our mobile lab resources and needed more access. Third, trying to talk with teachers about the pedagogy required for integrating current and emerging technologies is complex unless teachers have access to current and emerging technologies that they can use with real students.
In short, our teachers needed more access and a pilot 1:1 program would be very low cost. That left one final question–did we have to change teaching and learning, or was it good enough to know that, with support, the professionals who teach our students could make use of the power of 1:1 with their current knowledge and continue to learn with the devices in their classroom? We decided to ask them. On October 1, 2009, the middle school principal floated the idea to the sixth grade teachers of running a pilot in grade 6 for the second semester. Teachers jumped at the opportunity. Eleven school weeks later as the second semester started, sixth grade students and teachers embarked on the pilot together.
The rest of the history is pretty standard for implementation: communicating with parents, addressing their concerns, working with the sixth grade team planning for the pilot, providing training to teachers on cloud-based tools, doing all of the background work, addressing issues as they arose during the pilot, and on and on and on.
One detail did stand out. For the pilot, we planned to loan one of the school's older laptops to any student who didn't bring a device by using laptops from a mobile lab. We had data showing that about a third of sixth graders had a laptop but we really didn't know how many would show up with a mobile device for the pilot. I was concerned that so few would show up that we couldn't loan enough computers and we would have to call off the pilot. The pilot started and, astoundingly, about three quarters of sixth graders showed up with a mobile device. That commitment to the pilot spoke of the parents' readiness and the students' readiness for these devices to be used for learning in school.
Based on the success of the pilot due to the hard work of the sixth grade team, the model changed from pilot to implementation, with grades 6 and 7 being 1:1 this year and going to grade 8 the following year.
Our choices were specific to the conditions in the Middle School and to our specific goals. Other places and other times have different conditions and different goals.
Eleven weeks. We didn't set out to change the world. We didn't set out to change the school. We didn't set out to change the teachers. We set out to put more power in students’ and teachers’ hands right then. In that we succeeded.