Iowa – A computer in every hand

[This is Post 3 for my guest blogging stint at The Des Moines Register.]

Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” This week I am blogging about 5 key levers that I think are necessary to move Iowa schools forward and help our graduates survive and thrive in this new digital, global age in which we now live. Yesterday I discussed online learning opportunties for students. Today’s post concerns providing a computer for every student.

It is hard to believe that the personal computer is nearly three decades old. Our computing devices have come a long way in that time and they now permeate nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives. At the individual level, this movement has been driven by mobile computers and phones, wireless access, and the rise of the Internet. Every generation of computers seems to be smaller, cheaper, faster, and more powerful than the one before. Every new device or online service allows us to do things more efficiently, more effectively, or that we never could do before. And of course the pace of change is quite brisk.


As a result, it’s extremely difficult to find a well-paying job in America these days that doesn’t involve significant use of digital technologies. Unlike other sectors of our society, however, our schools still view the use of computers as a marginal add-on, as something that’s optional rather than essential to the everyday core of teaching and learning. Our schools still pretend that it’s an analog paper world rather than a networked digital world.


This has got to stop. We have to stop believing that we can adequately prepare graduates for a technology-suffused world by immersing them in paper-suffused learning environments. We have to look critically at student-computer ratios in schools – which mask the reality that most computers belong to teachers or are in labs – and ask a different question instead: On average, how much time per week do students get to use digital technologies as part of their classroom learning? The answer to this question is dismally low in almost every Iowa classroom.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of technology-facilitated learning opportunities in our K-12 schools. One is funding, of course. I recently did some back-of-the-envelope calculations for Iowa’s Institute for Tomorrow’s Workforce. At $300/year, the costs each year to provide a laptop to the 480,000 students in Iowa would be:

213,000 K-5 students = $63.9 million
114,000 6–8 students = $34.2 million
153,000 9–12 students = $45.9 million

These numbers look daunting, particularly given difficult economic times. But it is possible to do this by sharing the cost between state monies and school districts’ general funds, levies, and referenda. Other potential ways to reduce costs include, but are not limited to:

  • utilizing federal or grant monies,
  • leasing instead of buying,
  • purchasing netbooks instead of laptops,
  • allowing students to bring in their own laptops,
  • making use of the mobile computers that most students bring to school every day (i.e., their cell phones), and/or
  • only purchasing laptops for economically-disadvantaged students.

In the end, we have to balance the costs of doing this versus the costs of NOT doing this.

In addition to funding, numerous other challenges exist as well. One of the biggest is the current predisposition of schools to invest in teacher-centric technologies like televisions, DVD/VCR players, projectors, electronic whiteboards, and document cameras. They’re important and useful but they’re also primarily used as yet another way for teachers to push out information to students. In contrast, laptops, netbooks, digital cameras, small high-definition camcorders, digital voice recorders, webcams, digital scientific probes or sensors, and other devices are primarily used by students to facilitate their own academic learning. If we want Iowa students to gain the technology skills they will need to be productive citizens and workers, schools should be making as many investments in these latter, student-centric devices as possible. There also are a number of free or low-cost online software and tools that students and teachers can use in creative and productive ways.

Another large barrier to students’ technology usage is teachers’ inability to effectively implement digital tools into their instruction. One of the dirty secrets of K-12 educational technology is that many of the computing devices that already have been purchased are rarely used. This may occur because of teachers’ lack of training; most educators need a lot more help in this area. Or it may occur because of a lack of adequate technology support, which results in teachers inability to rely on the technology actually working when they do decide to use it. Or it may occur because of teachers’ outright refusal to integrate technology because of lack of interest or comfort.



Other barriers include the often-draconian Internet filtering systems that are in place in most schools, the increased pressure on schools’ Internet bandwidth capacity from additional computing devices, and the lack of adequate wireless and/or electrical capacity in many of Iowa’s school buildings.

The state of Maine provides laptops to 36,000 students and 11,000 educators (at a cost of just under $300/head, which is the basis of my calculations above). The New South Wales province in Australia has announced that it will be purchasing 197,000 laptops for its secondary students. A number of schools and districts across the country (and a few in Iowa) are piloting or implementing 1:1 laptop programs for students. It is these graduates, who have had the opportunity to regularly utilize in productive ways the same technologies that the adult world uses, who will be best prepared for a digital society.


Chris Lehmann, Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, notes that technology in schools should be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible. This is how technology is in adult workplaces. Can you imagine how unproductive you would be in your job if you had to schedule a time next Thursday for 45 minutes in order to use the computer (as teachers now have to do for students to use the lab(s) in their schools)?

There will be a day when we look back and realize how foolish it was that we waited so long to get a computing device into every student’s hands 24–7. Until that day, however - until we find the collective will to enable Iowa students to productively utilize in their schools the technologies that are transforming our society - they will continue to be disadvantaged compared to their more fortunate counterparts in other states or countries.

Recommended reading

Recommended viewing 

6 Responses to “Iowa – A computer in every hand”

  1. I am simply focusing on the cell phones in my classroom at this time. The more I use them, the more I need them…texting data, podcasts, a cheap alternative to clickers, etc. I was seriously disappointed to see HF 271 enter the Iowa Legislature, proposing a ban on cell phones in school facilities. I think I am becoming a Libertarian, but let me have more local control and less regulatory worry.

    I like the netbook idea. I have watched several schools try the one student-one laptop concept in Eastern Iowa, and without tech support, it quickly becomes overwhelming for the Districts.

  2. Though I don’t live in Iowa anymore (just across the river now), I am following your posts with great interest. I agree that moving towards 1:1 would be the ideal for producing 21st century students. It causes me great consternation when administrators spend insane amounts of money on interactive whiteboards, clickers, etc. so that they “look” techno-savvy. The money could benefit many more students if invested in the right areas. Training and recruiting motivated and engaging teachers is the other half of the equation. 1:1 classrooms can be a waste in the wrong hands.

    I would love a room full of new netbooks or even iTouches, but it’s not in the cards at the small private school I teach in. Through a lot of luck and generosity however, I’ve managed to cobble together enough computers in my room to accommodate at least half a class at a time. As long as the computers can get on the internet and have enough oomph to run flash, I’ll take them. Several of my computers are hand me downs from a local company that was upgrading.

    I see this as a great opportunity for schools to alleviate equipment costs. You spoke of grants and federal monies in your post, but partnerships with large companies could be even more cost effective. If a company has a 3 year turnaround on equipment, that could still leave 2 years of a computer’s life left for a school. With web-based applications there would be few software concerns and fewer maintenance issues.

  3. Seeing the front page story in the Register about cell phones in the classroom made me think, “I wonder if this will make its way to Dangerously Irrelevant.” Turn the page, and lo and behold, both Scott and Marcia are quoted. Well done!

    Unfortunately, from the comments on the story it looks like we’re in for an uphill battle. The classic “It’s the teachers’ fault” excuse came out quickly.

  4. Russ,

    Take a look at the comments now and watch the feathers fly. There seems to be a ‘missing-the-point’ impact going, with parents being blamed, kids being blamed, teachers being blamed and no discussion of the fact that kids are using cell phones, and are not likely to stop using them just because a rule is being posted.

    Here are some questions I am struggling with in my own classroom:

    a) if a child forgets to bring pencil and paper to class, but remembers his/her cell phone, what tool will motivate them and allow them to communicate with me?

    b) if a child has to text a thesis or hypothesis to me, does that mean she/he has not engaged in critical thinking?

    c) if a child is inappropriately using their cell phone in class, should we AVOID having a discussion about responsibility? What about telling that child, “Please put that away” or “Please put your cell phone on the classoom cell phone daybed so you aren’t tempted”? And if a child is sending cyberbullying or nasty pictures, we should DEFINITELY be telling those children about FCC guidelines and possible charges…there was a child in Florida who went to jail for that type of behavior.

    Let me be clear….I am trying to improve my performance in the classroom with kids. I don’t use cell phones every day, but I do message homework assignments to them, I have them take pictures of review materials on a whiteboard—whatever taps their multiple intelligences. And I LOVE the possibilities of podcasting with students–especially or, all from a phone. can also be a potential use for the future.

    Argggh, I simply see no way to help people push past the paradigm wall that they keep creating for themselves. The wall is shifting, and the world is shifting, so doesn’t education have to keep on moving, too? Maybe I am feeling a little irrelevant today, also…

  5. I just wanted to voice support for one-one ratio of devices. Laptops are expensive (especially to keep batteries charged, replaced, etc.) and the netbooks need to mature more, but it’s the only answer to the question: “how many computers should a school have?” There’s simply no other equitable way to get to where you can assign, collect, provide, share, collaborate or otherwise have students participate in a technology immersed wider world. It’s true that we value mostly “any century skills” such as character, work habits, etc., but we do need to incorporate practical, relevant activities to prepare students for the technology immersion of today. It’s also important because we need to model strategies for coping with the “information storm,” keeping safe on-line, etc. So yes, in spite of the technical headaches and the need for additional support staff (which we must be honest about) it’s important for all students to have a computing device, especially at secondary level.
    Here’s one example: let’s say I have a class today in journalism. Well, there’s a lot I can teach about cogent writing, and it’s valuable, but if I don’t include something about the blogging phenomenon, the new copyright issues, etc., I am negligent. And… how do I do that if they don’t all have computers handy? And how do they put together their publication, which is on-line? And how do they post the material from their beats (which consist of text messages, and cell phone images?) Today, teaching in most subjects just doesn’t work well without computers, because, working in most fields doesn’t either.

  6. My school (and division) have both been working to increase the number of computers/laptops available. I don’t think that we will hit a 1:1 ratio but we are running into speedbumps. The biggest one is bandwidth. More and more we are using online tools. These online tools use lots of bandwidth. Add that to more and more computers and we will need more and more bandwidth. It is fine for the urban schools – it is easy for the division to give them more bandwidth. The problem is at a school like mine – a rural school. Our bandwidth has been capped to save money. My school with about 80 computers has less bandwidth than my house does. Computers are not enough. We need the whole package – the tools AND the support.

    Soon we will be getting a cell phone tower nearby. I wonder if any of us will use the cell phone for teaching?

Leave a Reply to mapowell