Implementing 1-to-1 Computing: Getting Close, But Content Still Falls Short

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | by Eliot Levinson, et al. 

Implementation of digital educational content and 1:1 devices is happening now and is replacing the century-old textbook as the technology of education delivery. Almost every school in the country is experimenting with 1:1 devices; every hardware manufacturer and education publisher is introducing web-based products; and key states are changing their textbook procurement policies to encourage the purchase of electronic materials instead of textbooks.

A trinity of elements makes the new educational delivery process effective:

-Low-cost digital devices

-The capacity of schools to successfully procure digital content and manage its delivery and utilization

-The functionality of digital content

The integration of the three elements will create effective implementation of digital curriculum. To date, the scorecard on the elements for effective implementation reads as follows: 

Devices—The devices are viable. Androids and iPads are easy to use; they primarily display material but also have some production capability.

Management Capacity—School districts’ capacity to effectively plan, manage, and integrate technology for improved education results is less problematic than it has been in the past. A group of leading-edge school districts with over a decade of experience has been developing the policies,  organizational structure, training, and support processes to introduce, fund, and sustain 1:1 computing. Lighthouse institutions such as Minnetonka, MN, the state of Maine, Henrico County, VA, and St. Charles, LA, are acting as models and mentoring the less experienced districts, and the number of such exemplars is growing.

Digital Content—Digital content is the most important and least developed of the three elements. The computing devices are the platform for the delivery of digital content and the districts are the agent of delivery. But the key to effective student engagement and results—and publishers’ profits—is the new digital content.

We start with the basic assumption that, to be economically viable, the combined cost of the new devices and content has to be less than that of the current materials. To date, most digital content replicates the traditional textbook model in pricing and presentation. However, publishers are beginning to develop new types of content, and districts are not yet prepared to deal with the new world. They lack processes for the selection and maintenance of digital materials. The established textbook licensing models of one book per student for five years does not work for 1:1 computing, and although both the established and the new web publishers have been grappling over the last few years with the challenge of developing an effective pricing model, no viable option has emerged.

Content—The Industry Perspective

The Beginning. Following the pattern of most technology innovation, the early form of digital content replicated the previous print model. Just as Lotus 1-2-3 modeled the accountant’s spreadsheet, the digital publishing format initially modeled the textbook in both style and pricing. The Apple E pub interactive format m the first kid on the block, enabled the big publishers to produce interactive  textbooks and charge the schools $15 per year for six years, essentially retaining the same economics of the traditional textbook model.

Pricing and Distribution. Almost immediately, rapid innovation took hold in the distribution of digital content. Smaller firms that had developed consumer products could charge considerably less than $15 per student and could use the iTunes store and other web outlets rather than salespeople for distribution. Currently an increasing amount of content—including freemium-based collections of Common Core Standards–based curriculum like LearnZillion and Better Lesson—are available on the web or through learning management systems. The long-term viability of these providers is unclear, but they definitely challenge the old model.

The Nature of Content. The days of print-only textbooks are diminishing. Many digital textbooks include videos of teacher lectures. This development allows a flipped classroom, with students watching the lecture at home and working with the teacher on assignments in school. Whether flipped classrooms are a fad or an enduring change is not clear.

There are opportunities for student collaboration on the curriculum content.

Content now includes multimedia options for sound and video, as seen in the Capstone Digital collection of library books.

The use of measurement tools like Lexiles can enable customization of curriculum to a student’s performance level, as well as planning the amount of time a student needs to attain mastery.     

Several apps are available that students can use for such functions as writing and calculation.

Games, though not yet widely used, are coming on strong and may become major curriculum elements for all subjects; the use of games in BrainPop is a good example.

The Missing Pieces. Adaptive assessments, professional development, and technology fluency are among the missing components in the effort to make 1:1 delivery and digital content work.

Adaptive assessment. The evolution of digital content combined with 1:1 devices offers the promise for individualized learning plans for students. However, such plans depend on adaptive assessment that can identify missing student skills and provide materials to reteach and retest. Though the market includes a few adaptive assessments with that functionality, such as Skillspointer, the number is limited. Until adaptive assessments combined with materials for re-teaching and re-testing are the norm, the ability for individualized instruction will be limited. Even if adaptive assessments develop rapidly, it will likely take a long time for school systems and teachers to adapt to flipped classrooms and individualized teaching.

Training and fluency. This is no longer your grandmother’s computing world. Technology fluency and the training needed to function effectively in the era of mobile computing and social media are significantly different than in earlier stages of technology implementation. We need rules and standardized conventions for such issues as online bullying, distinguishing fact from opinion, plagiarism, and effective collaboration. Effective utilization of content demands a standardized set of required training and conventions. The work that Common Sense Media and Atomic Learning are doing in this area provides some early examples.

Content—The Schools’ Perspective

School systems have not yet thought about the processes that they need in place to purchase and use the new digital content for 1:1 computing. To our knowledge, school districts lack models for selecting or licensing this content. Here are some of the main issues that will need to be resolved in the near future:

What is the procedure for choosing digital curriculum? It is unlikely that the old model of committees taking a year to choose a new English curriculum will work anymore.

What criteria should be used besides standards to choose a curriculum, such as out-of-school use, engagement of students?

How will multiple curricula be implemented on 1:1 devices? That is, a district might choose three web-based curricula for elementary math instead of one, and then use parts of each, distributing them over the 1:1 devices.

What licensing model makes sense? Districts will likely push for a model of concurrent usage—paying for the number of students using a curriculum at one time rather than paying for every student to have a math book or access to software.

What other options should we consider? For example, there might be one provider like an LMS or the new Amplify product/curriculum firm that will be the aggregator/broker for content purchase.

The major task for both the industry and schools over the next year will be to determine a cost-effective model for the effective delivery of digital content.

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Five districts and five firms participated in this Thought Leadership Consortium. The districts were:

Calcasieu Parish, LA

Sunnyside (Tucson), AZ

Cheyenne, WY (

Miami–Dade County, FL (

Westonka, MN (

The firms were:

Carolina Science Online (

Common Sense Media (

Atomic Learning (

YourTeacher (

and Capstone Digital (


This column is a product of the BLEgroup Thought Leadership Consortium. The BLEgroup comprises 150 leading edtech practitioners who work with 80 edtech firms. The BLEgroup’s Thought Leadership sessions bring together a small number of interested, knowledgeable firms and school districts to collaboratively discuss critical edtech topics. The goal is to gain insight and provide perspective from and for the schools and the industry. The 1:1 Thought Leadership Consortium: Eliot Levinson Ph.D., Mike Magart, Bruce Wilcox, Dan Meyer, Gordon Knopp, Manuel Isquierdo, Don Hall, Sheryl Abshire, Debbie Karcher, Emily Esch, Randi Economu, and Richard Wyld. Write to:


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