In Focus

Considering Implementing a 1:1 Educational Technology Initiative? Read On.

Lori Gerstein Ramsey is senior research associate at Metis who spearheads many of our education technology research projects. Since coming to Metis in 2001, she has led or participated in dozens of evaluations of statewide, school district–wide, and school- and community-based education-technology projects. Lori received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University and has taught instructional technology courses at the university level. She started her career as a teacher and technology coordinator in the Cincinnati Public Schools.

Modern educational technology has been used in classrooms since the advent of the Apple II in the 1980s, but the idea of providing every student in a given classroom, school, or district with his or her own electronic device is fairly novel. Metis evaluated its first laptop initiative in 1996, in New York City's Community School District 6, and went on to evaluate more of these types of projects over the next several years.

Recently I had the pleasure of leading an evaluation in South Carolina of the Charleston County School District One-to-One Learning Initiative, and my colleague Claire Aulicino is embarking on a similar evaluation in Florida's Broward County Schools. So-called 1:1 initiatives, in which every child and teacher is provided with a laptop computer, tablet, or hand-held device are continuing to gain steam. While some argue that technology is being adopted—perhaps blindly—for its own sake, I have learned that, when certain criteria are met, technology can enhance learning and the learning environment.

Districts that have made substantial commitments to 1:1 technology have generally done so based on several premises:

  • Schools can capitalize on the power of technology best when everyone has ubiquitous and equal access to it.
  • Technology offers tremendous potential for “personalized” learning.
  • Many students are already using a wide variety of devices offering 24/7 access to information; it is counterintuitive to limit these educational resources inside school walls.
  • School-sponsored technology for those in the most need can help bridge the digital divide.

Indeed, the 2010 National Education Technology Plan noted, “The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures.”

Based on our findings over the past 15 years, other evidence-based approaches, and initiatives like the National Education Technology Plan, we have identified some key touch points to take into account before implementing a 1:1 initiative.

1. Consider the Technology Carefully from the Start
Fourth grade students

Fourth grade students in Billie Ann Blalock’s class at Drayton Hall Elementary school are using IPads for a variety of classroom tasks. The school is participating in the 1:1 learning initiative that Metis evaluated in Charleston County, South Carolina.

A successful 1:1 initiative requires a great deal of up-front planning. Some of the central questions that school systems should consider are: What devices are you going to adopt (e.g., laptops, tablets)? How, and how often (and by whom), will applications be updated? What is the lifespan of your chosen device, and what happens when it becomes obsolete? How much support will schools receive from the larger district, and will individual schools have expert facilitators based in-house? Does the school require updated or expanded wifi to ensure sufficient bandwidth so that the products are not sluggish?

It is essential that all parties, including district and school administrators, teachers, technical staff, and parents be involved in in-depth planning and decision-making if the initiative is to be successful.

2. Determine How Much Access Students Will Have

This is a hugely important issue that comprises both where students access the devices (school and/or home) and how much access to information they will have (vis à vis filtering software for the internet).

A key question for any locale is: Will students bring the devices home? I tend to believe that they should. Despite the legal and financial risks, allowing students to take devices home supports digital inclusion. However, it is not enough just to provide devices. Indeed, while the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 95 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use the internet, it also found that in 2010, just 45 percent of households that earned less than $30,000 a year had broadband in their homes.

The combination of allowing the devices to go home and providing families with affordable internet access would truly allow students to continue working on school projects at home. In fact, some schools are implementing versions of the “flip model,” where instead of receiving information in class and doing hands-on projects at home, students learn at home—through online written materials or videos—and teachers oversee hands-on projects in school “tackling difficult problems, working in groups, researching, collaborating, crafting and creating.”

3. Teach Students to be Discerning and Responsible Digital Citizens

Schools need to strike a balance between ensuring an appropriate flow of information and safeguarding students from harmful sites. In October 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District halted its $1 billion plan to equip students with iPads when it came to light that 300 students in one high school had surmounted the firewall, gaining access to sites that had been intentionally blocked. Although the district is now moving forward with a scaled-back approach to the project, it is a cautionary tale that any filtering software can be “hacked.”

Which brings me to my next point: It is important to consider seriously the ways in which students are going to be taught how to be savvy digital consumers. It is not enough simply to safeguard students from inappropriate material. In truth, we all know they will be faced with a vast array of material in spite of whatever filters or controls we put in place. So, they need to understand the difference between credible and unreliable information. They also need to learn how to be a good digital friend to oneself and others. In a world where digital bullying and false information are rampant, it is a moral imperative to help students learn how to navigate the digital landscape with grace.

4. Understand the Pedagogy Behind the Technology

Although it's easy to be entranced by cool apps and exciting hardware, schools that make the most of educational technology are those that truly understand its vast potential in instruction. Blended learning, which harnesses the power of technology and the internet to bring personalized learning to the larger scale, has been identified as a possible “game changer” in education. Indeed, the Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation suggests that “blended learning is not the same as technology-rich instruction. It goes beyond one-to-one computers and high-tech gadgets. Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, meaning increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of his or her learning.”

As Metis found in its Charleston, South Carolina, evaluation of a 1:1 initiative, teachers using these technologies felt that they were better able to meet diverse student learning needs. When implemented well, 1:1 technology enables students to work through material at their own pace, allowing teachers to do the kind of one-to-one work that they do best: helping students who need help the most. Teachers now can draw on a substantial body of digital, often open-source content and learning resources, such as the Kahn Academy or OER Commons, that allow them to take advantage of experts in the field and excellent content (including primary source material), so that they have to do less lesson planning and can spend more time targeting specific needs of students.

Aiding in this effort is Net Texts, a company that is working to harness open-source material and provide it at no charge to educational institutions. It has developed an iPad application to help students access content and a website for teachers to post and manage material and monitor its usage. A 2013 evaluation by Metis found that Net Texts had enabled middle school teachers to supplement (or replace) textbooks with timely information on the subjects at hand, allowing teachers to cover more material, help students answer some of their own questions at home, and literally lighten students' loads by emptying heavy backpacks of books.

5. Provide Teachers with the Support They Need

Effectively integrating technology into the instructional day takes extensive, ongoing support so that teachers capitalize on its benefits and not simply transfer paper and pencil tasks to the laptop or tablet. Metis has seen across all of its education technology evaluations that without ongoing and embedded professional development, teachers will not feel confident using the technology. This training must have a dual focus on technological and pedagogical assistance. Teachers want day-to-day support inside the school and expressed a need for coaching from experienced facilitators in integrating educational technology into instruction—not just help-desk assistance for technical issues.

Overall, educators and others promoting educational technology must remember: It's not about the device; it's about the learning that the device generates. And let's face it, as Metis's evaluations have shown, students, parents, and teachers enjoy it. Stakeholders report that school engagement is up in the schools that make good use of technology. We don't need to teach kids how to use devices—these days, they're the ones teaching us. But we need to teach them to be digitally literate twenty-first century citizens who know where to find content online, sort out what is credible, and make appropriate use of technology, both in and out of school.


Please drop Lori a note at lramsey@metisassoc.com to share your experiences and views on 1:1 learning initiatives!