Ed Tech Trends | Q&A

1-to-1 Computing: Turning Around School Technology

Early in the last decade, Piedmont City School District, a small three-school district in Eastern Alabama between Birmingham and Atlanta, laid claim to the worst computer-to-student ratio in the state. Since then, the Piedmont district, where 65 percent of students qualify for reduced or free lunch, has successfully shaken off that title after embarking on a number of ambitious technology-driven projects, including a 1-to-1 take-home laptop initiative--called Mpower--a remote-learning partnership with Stanford University, and a wide-scale E-rate-funded project that will eventually bring high-speed Internet access to every student's home.

"About four years ago the last big employer in our city left, so our school system is the biggest thing going on in our community," explained Piedmont Superintendent Matt Akin. "Looking at the future, we felt like we needed to do something to give our community hope again."

THE Journal recently spoke with Akin for a two-part interview about his district's approach to technology. Here he shares how the Mpower program got started, his approach to student safety, and the one thing he would have done differently.

Stephen Noonoo: What would you say makes your 1-to-1 initiative different from other similar ones?

Superintendent Matt Akin: One is the high level of community involvement. We knew that to be successful we needed the whole community, not just parents and kids. We made it a point to involve our businesses in town, our city council, our senior citizens, churches, and just bring everyone in.

Noonoo: Why did you specifically choose laptops, and why MacBooks over tablets like iPads?

Akin: When we started, iPads were just out, and, instead of looking at something that is just content delivery, we felt that MacBooks gave students the opportunity to create things. I know iPads are expanding, and I'm not anti-iPad, but we just felt that, for students, having a laptop in their hands gave them more than just a digital textbook. Although you could do digital textbooks on the MacBooks, you also give student the opportunity to collaborate.

Noonoo: How did you manage funding for the 1-to-1 program?

Akin: Originally, we had a federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grant, so we started with just a pilot at the high school with a 2-to-1 initiative. We visited some other school systems--Morrisville, NC, was one of the main ones that kind of served as a mentor to us. That got it going as we started looking at the budget. The teachers that were involved said that if every kid had their own computer, we could do amazing things. And when your teachers have that attitude and philosophy, the superintendent and board members feel like they have an obligation to try to figure out how to do it.

When we looked at our overall budget and where we were spending money, we found that if we wanted to do this it was going to be about 4 percent of our budget per year. Four percent is not a lot of money when you're passionate about it and believe, like we did, in the opportunity, that it could change kids' lives.

It started with some federal seed money, but then it was really funded locally. Since it was put in place, we've gotten quite a bit of money through grants. Whether it's a foundation or state grant agencies, we are more likely to see grant money when they see that Piedmont has made an investment of $1 million in hardware. We have something invested in it and that's what's helping us expand our after-school and summer activities.

Noonoo: Your students take the laptops home with them. How do you handle safety issues and protect the assets?

Akin: As far as safety is concerned, we have kind of a quasi-governmental agency called the Alabama Supercomputer Authority. They receive E-rate funding, and they provide Internet access for all of our schools. There's a filter that's on the laptops. The Supercomputer helped us set up our filter so that no matter where the laptop goes, or who is providing Internet access, the filter is always there. If my son takes his laptop to California and gets Internet access in a hotel, it's still going to push them back through this filter.

We do a lot of training as far as teachers go. It's also working with kids on online safety, and with parents, too. Whether you're filtered or not, there are still things you need to be aware of, whether it's Facebook or chat rooms. As far as taking care of that, we're a little different in that, while a lot of school systems have AUPs (acceptable use policies), we have what's known as a Required Use Policy. Our students pay a $50 insurance fee. If they're low income and they can't afford the fee, we feel strongly that everyone should have something invested, so a student may pay $2 a month. We have face-to-face conversations with every parent or guardian. And as long as they're following that policy and something happens to that computer, then it's on us. We pay for the charges. If they're not following the policy--drinking a soft drink around the laptop and they spill it--we don't charge them for labor, but we do charge them for parts.

Noonoo: Have you had many issues with the laptops?

Akin: No, not too bad. You've got to understand, a lot of our kids go home to parents that are working at night. We've had a fair amount of broken screens--that seems to be the biggest thing. It's not a lot--less than 1 percent--but anytime you've got to replace a screen, it's a pain. At the end of the day, we knew what we were doing and what we were getting into. We knew there would be some computers that got broken. The risk is worth the reward.

One of the other things we did is partner with Jacksonville State University (AL). Some of their computer science students come down and man the help desk. A lot of that is just software issues. We also have our own employees, like instructional aids, that may have been in computer labs. We don't have computer labs anymore, so they might man the help desk a couple periods a day. It's really about reorganizing the whole school system.

Noonoo: What happens to the laptops when students graduate from high school?

Akin: We're in year two, so those senior computers rolled back down and became fourth-grade computers. We're on a four-year lease, so after three years, typically what you see is school systems would trade them in or renew a lease. We'd like to make them available to our seniors when they leave, but it's very pricey to do that.

Noonoo: Would you consider letting them buy them?

Akin: It would be hard for us to do that in years one and two. But one of the things we would like to do as we come to the end of our lease is to make them available to students that are leaving.

Noonoo: Eventually, the MacBooks will have to be replaced. Will you do that in installments?

Akin: We'll probably do a total refresh of grades 4 through 12. The question becomes, will we do that at the end of next year or the year after? Hopefully, it will be after next year. Then the question becomes, what will we do then? Will it be iPads or MacBook Airs? It will be interesting to see where things stand from a technology point of view in a couple of years.

Noonoo: What are your thoughts about the new iPad initiatives in other districts?

Akin: It's impressive from an education point of view. I've read excerpts of Steve Jobs's book, and I hope that the textbook industry gets revived--just like what has happened to the music industry.

If a digital textbook is going to turn around and cost us the same as a regular textbook, that's not going to change the world of education. But if it comes to where outside people are making textbooks and creating a lot of free stuff, or where you can buy a chapter for a dollar, like has happened to the music industry, I think you're going to see iPads or some other tablet all over the place. I think that reform of the textbook industry is important. I would really like to see that take place. I know that the textbook companies deserve to be paid for their product, but I think this is one way you could really change the world.

Noonoo: Do you have any anchored computers left in your schools?

Akin: We don't have any computer labs. In K-3, we're doing laptops on carts, so it just seems it's really working to take the learning to the classroom instead of everybody going to a computer lab. I think if you can figure out a way to get laptops in every kid's hands at least every other day, you can really change the approach to teaching and learning.

Noonoo: What are some of the other cutting-edge things you're doing? What is your district's long-term vision?

Akin: Our high school is small, so last year our Spanish teacher got married and left, and we were looking for someone who could teach Spanish four periods a day. Well, those people aren't just walking around. At the high school we started doing true online foreign language classes, so every student at Piedmont has the opportunity of taking French, German, or Chinese, instead of just taking Spanish. And if they want to get ahead, they can take two years in one.

It's the same thing with computer science--you just don't see a lot of folks who are trained to teach computer science coming into high school. I have a background where I'm trained to teach AP computer science, but we just didn't have enough qualified teachers, so we're teaching it through Stanford University and iTunes U.

Noonoo: How does the partnership with Stanford University work?

Akin: We're using all their lectures. I contacted the professor at Stanford because I think the videos are probably three or four years old and said, "It sure would be nice if we could have your stuff." He sent us all his PowerPoints, his coding requirements, and solutions. Although it's a real informal partnership, it's neat for a school district in northeast Alabama to be working with a professor at Stanford to teach a computer science course.

Noonoo: Anything else that you have in the pipeline?

Akin: If you look at research, one of the worst things for at-risk kids is for them to go home in the summer and not have any learning take place. We're looking at a way, through our extended learning academy, to let at-risk kids keep their computers in the summer if they are enrolled in a remediation program. We'll give a benchmark test, so when they leave in the seventh grade, we will know where they stand. If they're not where they should be as a seventh grader, they can work with computer instruction aligned with coming into school part of the day during the summer, and they will keep their computers so they can keep learning.

On the other hand, whether they're at risk or not, we've got some things in place to offer some enrichment programs, too. We've talked about bumping foreign language down to fourth or fifth grade and letting them take a foreign language in the summer. It's not only extending learning 24/7, but truly 24/7 through the summer, which is really where I think we need to steer.

Noonoo: Have there been any missteps regarding your implementation of digital initiatives so far?

Akin: There's always room for improvement. I think it's one of those things where, if you asked our teachers, they would say, "You went too fast--slow down a little bit." We did some professional development going in, but we did a lot of just-in-time professional development where, when issues came up, we did training during planning periods through video instruction. Probably the more professional development opportunities you can offer your teachers the better.