1:1 Computing: More Than Devices

Provoking thought and action toward effective digital teaching and learning

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | by Eliot Levinson, et al.

1to1 Computing More Than Devices by Eliot Levinson et alThis article is the second of three 1:1 computing papers from the BLEgroup Thought Leadership Consortium, which brings together a small number of knowledgeable firms and school districts to collaborate on topics critical to effective digital teaching and learning. For this paper, Carolina Scientific, Atomic Learning, Your Teacher, Common Sense Media and Capstone Digital collaborated with Westonka (MN), Calcasieu Parish (LA), Cheyenne (WY) and Miami (FL) school districts.

Developing 1:1 Vision

Implementing 1:1 computing is like cooking the perfect meal: For spectacular results, you must conduct the process slowly and patiently, using the right ingredients at the right time…all the while visualizing the outcome. In K12 schools, 1:1 computing connotes a child having his/her own device. Most school districts believe they are engaging in 1:1 computing when there is a ratio of one computing device, pad or phone for every child. Often, this concept is considered a silver bullet: “If the computer is present, education will occur.”

But in reality, 1:1 computing is a complex system grounded in a vision of educational accomplishment. This may include a cloud-based system that enables customized instructional resources to:

  • Deliver measurable, individualized instruction
  • Provide teachers with ongoing professional development
  • Link all instructional stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, and administrators) toward achieving outcomes

That said, for 1:1 computing to be economically viable, the combined cost of instructional materials and devices must be no greater than (or, even better, less than) what’s currently spent on textbooks. While the cost of materials is coming down, text books still will be around for a while until the adoption cycle ends. Currently, schools have to pay a little more for devices and materials to make 1:1 computing economically viable; however, schools then own more of their intellectual property, thereby lowering costs. Educational publishers must develop new pricing models and licensing options to be acceptable to schools and remain profitable; thus, the economic viability of 1:1 computing still will take some time.

Gathering the Necessary Ingredients 

To understand effective implementation of 1:1 computing, observe the common characteristics of districts moving in that direction. The following attributes are present in all Consortium districts making significant progress.

  • Start by focusing on instructional outcomes: The process takes from 3 to 5 years to achieve, so successful districts learn to keep their eye on the prize. For example, the Sunnyside district in Tucson, AZ, is focused on high school graduation rates. For the 5+ years they’ve used 1:1 computing, rates have grown from 67% to 87%.
  • Pilot all new activities: Never begin with full scale implementation. The Minnetonka, MN, district utilized 1:1 computing in half the high school freshman classes before expanding to the entire freshman class and then the whole high school.
  • Build infrastructure that’s robust, redundant and practically bullet-proof: In Lake Charles, LA, all instructional materials reside on the cloud and networks are backed up by generators, creating a dependable network that garners stakeholders’ trust.
  • Provide professional development: This may include technology instruction coaches per school to instruct teachers on integrating subject matter into teaching with technology.
  • Pursue sustainability: Successful districts include technology as part of their ongoing budget and plan for sustainability.
  • Empower the technology director or CIO: These professionals are strategic both instructionally and technically and should always be a member of the superintendent’s team.
  • Champion 1:1 computing: In most cases, this is the superintendent’s role—to secure resources and tout the program within the community. There should always be a strong PR campaign to support the effort.
  • Search for new materials and approaches continually: There should be an ongoing search for new materials to implement and gradual improvement through training. This may include piloting different programs, from open source content to adaptive assessment.
  • Develop metrics to study progress: As an example, Henrico County (VA) has a 4-year process with distinct metrics available to demonstrate gradual learning of new teaching skills.
  • Create policies: Again, successful districts develop policies that require teachers to utilize digital curriculum and master technology skills.

Determining What’s Missing

There are certain roadblocks that can prevent 1:1 computing from becoming more common in the teaching and learning process, including:

  • Adaptive assessment: This locates missing skills, provides materials to teach them and certifies competency.
  • Intelligent instructional materials:  These are needed to respond to particular learning needs.
  • Significant training and time: The truth is that 1:1 computing creates a major change in the work process of teaching and therefore requires a significant investment.
  • The need for long-term, embedded mentoring: This is the strongest form of professional development, as studies suggest that web-based instruction has not been as effective.
  • Their digital cycle: This identifies how the piece gets from the source (e.g., teacher) to the subject (e.g., student) and back again through a host (e.g., learning management system).

Avoiding Common Mistakes

Even with all the right ingredients, motivated districts still may make a few missteps in the implementation process. Study the following to ensure you’re not making implementation more difficult.

  • Having insufficient bandwidth: The most common problem is that districts lack sufficient bandwidth to implement and sustain 1:1 computing.
  • Being short-sighted: They view implementation as a short process and therefore implement too many systems at once, creating organizational resistance and inviting failure.
  • Lacking a goal: There’s no outcome delineated at the starting point, so efforts may become scattered or, worse, counter-productive.
  • Missing ongoing support roles: Many districts fail to provide support at the school- and curriculum levels to ensure ongoing program success.
  • Missing the target: Some schools replicate the textbook model of instruction on a computer and thus don’t benefit from the features of true 1:1 computing


Although only some schools are implementing 1:1 computing optimally due to the organizational, technical, financial and instructional factors required for its effectiveness, it is a promising start. And with the state of both technology and teaching, there’s no doubt that 1:1 computing will continue to be a strong part of our educational future.

This piece was authored by Eliot Levinson, Ph.D., Manuel Isquierdo, Ed.D; Tom Woodward;  Sheryl Abshire, Ph.D; Debbie Karcher; and Julie Carter, Ed.D. For more information on the Thought Leadership Consortium visit www.blegroup.com or to view our previous installment, see Getting Close.


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