Question of the Month: The PC Numbers Game
The obvious goal for every school these days is to have one computer per student available for a variety of educational tasks, from research and writing to tests and projects. But, does that ideal reflect reality? What is the current ratio of students to computers at your schools? Is it not enough, too many or just right?
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction
Brighton Central Schools
As the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction of a small suburban district in upstate New York, I continually work with teachers to identify the best curriculum and resources for our students. Obviously, computers and other associated technologies play a large role in the instructional programming of today’s classrooms and while those conversations often include the notion that ALL students need a textbook, ALL students need a variety of pencils, papers, and notebooks, and most recently, ALL students need their own flash drive, I’ve never, however, been part of a conversation where the statement “ALL students need a computer” was made.
I’m not sure why. My guess is that it has something to do with finances as well as underlying belief systems and knowledge of how technology can be used most effectively within the instructional environment. We provide teachers with their own laptops and as an adult learner, I couldn’t imagine carrying out my responsibilities without ongoing access to my computer. But somehow, that need doesn’t translate to the learning conditions we afford students.
Do we have enough computers? There are those teachers in my district I’m sure who would say “no”. Over the past few years we have started to replace computer labs with laptop carts in our middle school and the flexibility those have afforded teachers has helped to infuse their use. At this point, we have approximately a 4:1 ratio of students to computers district-wide. The issue though is not the ratio, but rather the location and capacity of those machines, coupled with the teacher’s ability to embed the expectation of computer use into their instructional planning.
Although we have moved to a cart-based system at our middle school, our high school still has many computer labs. Lab-based computers, in my opinion, reinforce the notion of the use of technology as an “event”. “Class, we can sign out the computer lab next Tuesday” to me is not indicative of a 21st century learning environment. You would never hear a teacher say, “Class, we can have access to the textbooks next Tuesday.” so I’m not sure why we continue to accept the former as a pronouncement of an acceptable learning condition. My suspicion is that, as stated earlier, we have not yet reached the capacity to fully exploit the thousands of technology-rich learning tools that are available and only with the appropriate professional development, modeling and support will we make additional access a priority.
Director of Technology Services
Tyler Independent School District
The Texas Education Agency does indeed have as a goal a 1:1 ratio of students to computers. We’d like to achieve that, however, we simply don’t have the budget available. Our reality is that we are closer to a 4:1 ratio. Now, if you want to get really real, we’d need to look at the age and actual usability of those PCs.
Knowing that many PCs in our inventory are getting extremely old, and increasingly useless, the actual ratio is higher. As one Technology Director I spoke with who is in a similar situation told me, “We have these PCs and they count in our inventory. We use them for four years and then complain about them for the next four!”
Our goal for the future is to bring in thin client based systems to reduce the costs and make more equipment available to students and teachers. The thin client model will enable us to keep the equipment we have, but make them run like a new PC with the newest available Windows products and instructional applications. Additionally, we will also be able to begin to open our network to student-owned computers and deliver to them a virtual desktop in a device-agnostic manner and so leverage their technology to help us lower the ratio.
Executive Director for Technology
Lakota School District
West Chester, Ohio
If you would have asked me if the goal of having one computer per student in schools today reflects reality in August of 2008 I would have provided a detailed plan of how we were going to get there and what funding would be required to make it happen. We were pushing 21stCentury school concepts, had just completed placing 750+ interactive white boards in classrooms along with document camera and clicker systems. We were on a roll! Then, BANG. The great recession hit, we’ve failed at passing two operating levies and we’re reeling from the shock of the State’s 29 percent budget cuts. At this point it will be the virtual desktop on thin clients or BYOD (Bring Your Own Device, so to speak) because there isn’t any money in next years’ budget for new student computers.
Our current ratio varies a bit from building to building, but in general we’re at 4:1. We use a combination of labs, laptop carts, small pods in special service areas and open WiFi for students who BYOD. As the fleet ages, and there is no replacement funding, I expect we’ll move to a complete BYOD model with supplemented devices for certain student populations.
In a recent planning session we mapped out a plan to enable managed wireless on all of our secondary buildings in order to deliver the service for BYOD. The District is moving to Microsoft’s Live@EDU for student email accounts, file storage and Web 2.0 managed tools. It’s all free. Maybe we need to get comfortable with an acronym like FIY – Fund It Yourself.
I think our prior vision of a computer for every student was, and is, a good one. We’re just learning new ways to make this happen on far less money.
Eastland-Fairfield Career and Technical Schools
When I first started in education more than 30 years ago, computers in schools were nonexistent. As the years went by, I first noticed that some students began talking about computers they had received as gifts on different occasions, such as for birthdays or at holidays. Slowly but surely computers were introduced to schools. Typically the staff member who tinkered in computers was given the task of being the technology coordinator. These folks worked hard to help staff members understand that computers and other technologies could make their lives easier. This was (and is) not an easy task.
I strongly believe that a one-to-one student to computer ratio is necessary in today’s educational environment. I am very proud to say that one of my final accomplishments as superintendent was to initiate a one-to-one laptop project in my school district. In 2008 we spent about $650 per student to equip them with a Wi-Fi enabled laptop computer at the beginning of the school year just like textbooks are issued. The program was a huge success, and I was fortunate to be in a district that could afford such an initiative. Moreover, the students were the beneficiaries of the initiative.
Students today are lost without technology. I strongly believe students learn more and in deeper ways when technology is used effectively. If a school does not have up-to-date technology available for students, some students find a way around it. When technology is not available in schools, the more affluent students who have technology available to them at home bring that technology to school and therefore have a distinct advantage over other students whose parents simply are unable to afford the latest technology. The lack of technology further accentuates the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our schools.
I realize fiscal issues prevent most school districts from realizing this goal, but I believe it can be achieved with careful planning and cuts in areas of the budget where the use of technology can replace current expenditures for items such as textbooks.