11 Innovative Strategies for Ensuring Device Equity

7/19/2013 12:00:00 AM
An abridged version of this article originally appeared at ED Tech: Focus on K-12.

School officials wondering what to do for students who lack their own notebook computers, smartphones or tablets can acquire extra devices with a little bit of ingenuity.

When I began teaching as a librarian in Harlem in the 1990s, my district was embarking on what was then considered an innovative program: putting a pod of four computers in ­every classroom. I still recall cringing as I heard some teachers say to ­students, "If you finish your work ­early, you can go 'play' on the computer." Back then, failing to recognize these devices' powerful learning potential was all too common.
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I loved having the opportunity through my job to expose children to a world of possibilities through books. Access to computers and the Internet took that to a whole new level, giving students instant feedback and interactivity while empowering them to become producers — rather than simply consumers — of information. I watched many of them discover creativity they didn't realize they had. Suddenly, they were using technology to draw, illustrate, write, connect and create professional-looking work that they couldn't wait to share with their families and the school community.

Many of my colleagues were amazed by the way students transformed when they came to my library. But all I was doing was providing the resources and guidance. Armed with that, our students took hold of their learning and went in directions we could not have imagined.

You may be wondering how the ­librarian at a cash-strapped, inner-city school could provide students with
such learning opportunities. Although we had four computers in each classroom and a lab for "drill-and-kill" standardized-test preparation, our school was technology poor.

But I believed in the importance of access for every student, so I came up with innovative ways to ensure that technology was available to them when they were in the library. This meant not only allowing students to bring their own device (if they had one), but also helping students — and the school — acquire devices at little or no cost.

Here are ways to ensure ­device equity even when budgets are tight or nonexistent.

Jose Luis Pelaez/Glow Images
  1. Tap into the power of networking. Ask friends, colleagues and even ­acquaintances if they know or work for companies that are refreshing their computers. Within a week of doing that, I found a public relations firm that was planning to update its entire inventory of computers. The firm agreed to donate the devices to my school. I just needed to figure out a way to get them there.

    I discovered through my networking that another friend was moving and convinced him to transport the ­computers from the PR firm to my school in his rental truck. Asking around also led me to someone who had the technological expertise to help me and three school volunteers configure the computers.

  2. Consider leasing and discount ­purchasing programs. Many manufacturers offer leasing programs that allow parents and schools to acquire computers and other hardware at lower prices that can be paid over time. Terms vary, so it's important to read the fine print before committing.

    Also, be on the lookout for ­affordable ways to acquire devices at deep discounts. As a Google Certified Teacher, I was particularly excited when I discovered that Google had established a program through which consumers could lease a
    Chromebook for $20 to $30 per month and then own the device ­outright after three years.

    Another great resource is
    DonorsChoose.org, an online charity through which donors can help teachers acquire the tools they need for specific classroom projects. In December 2012, for example, the site ran a Chromebooks for Classrooms promotionthrough which public school teachers could request up to 30 Samsung Series 5 Chromebooks at a discounted price of $99 apiece.

  3. Connect with companies that ­provide low-cost technology to ­students in need. The Computer Recycling Center in Northern California, for example, runs a Computers & Education reuse ­program that provides refurbished computers to schools and other California organizations in need. Educators in the state can apply for computers at crc.org/apply.

    Nationally, there's
    CFY (formerly Computers for Youth), a nonprofit that helps students in low-income communities, along with their teachers and families, leverage ­technology to improve educational outcomes through its Digital Learning Program. Among other things, the program provides training for teachers, students and their ­parents, along with a free broadband-ready home computer loaded with educational software and 24/7 ­bilingual help desk support.

    Even the federal government is providing support.
    Connect2Compete (everyoneon.org), a 2011 initiative of the Federal Communi­ca­tions Commission that ­became an independent nonprofit in summer 2012, offers millions of families who are ­eligible for the National School Lunch Program ­discounted $9.95-per-month broadband Internet, $150 ­refurbished notebook or desktop computers and free digital literacy training.

  4. Connect with community resources. While there are many ways to ­ensure that students have access to technology during the school day, guaranteeing access when they aren't on campus can be problematic. Reach out to resources in your community for help making access possible beyond school hours. The local library is an obvious place to start, but don't forget about the libraries on nearby college and university campuses. Community centers and local ­businesses also might be willing to make their ­computers available to students after hours and on weekends.

    Remember: It never hurts to ask. You may be surprised by local organizations' willingness to not only provide facilities access, but also to donate used devices when they're no longer needed.


  1. Design instruction based on student tech inventory. Even if you don’t have a device for every student at all times, know best practice strategies for sharing devices in pairs or groups as appropriate.  In the book Teaching Generation Text authors Willyn Webb and Lisa Nielsen suggest taking an inventory of what devices students have access to and then designing instruction with those devices in mind. Teachers like Bradley Lands do this by designing his project based learning work around a classroom with six laptops.


  1. Implement bring your own device (BYOD). As Tim Clark district instructional technology specialist with Forsyth County Schools (GA), explained earlier this year in T.H.E. Journal’s 7 Myths of BYOD, in his experience with BYOD, “Students who do not have personal technology devices have greater access to school-owned technology tools when students who bring their own devices to school are no longer competing for that access.” While not all students own a device today, many do. Give students the freedom to use the devices they own for themselves and with their classmates and supplement with additional devices as necessary.

  1. Reallocate your textbook budget and move toward (OER). For less than the average yearly per student expenditure for textbooks, each student could get a laptop for three years which breaks down to less than $100 per year. If you haven’t heard, there is a new movement in education and it’s called OER which stands for Open Educational Resources. This coordinated movement moves schools toward a common goal of providing quality resources and courses for learning for free. “At the heart of the movement toward Open Educational Resources is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general, and the Worldwide Web in particular, provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and re-use knowledge.” – The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
    With the Common Core Learning Standards coming to a state near you, a growing effort has been put in place to provide that which was previously delivered via costly paper textbooks, to instead be accessible online. In states like New York, these materials are available for free at
    Engaged NY. On a national level, there are sites like LearnZillion which is a learning platform that combines video lessons, assessments, and progress reporting. There are thousands of quaility lessons each highlighting a Common Core standard, starting with math in grades 3-9. Another is the American Federation of Teachers which has created Share My Lesson. This is a place where educators can come together to create and share their very best teaching resources to give access to high-quality teaching resources and provide an online community where teachers can collaborate with, encourage and inspire each other. Share My Lesson has a significant resource bank for Common Core State Standards, covering all aspects of the standards, from advice and guides to help with dedicated resources that support the standards.

  1. Stop wasting money on software that can do what you want for free. According to US News & World Report, 61 of the Top 100 colleges have switched to Google Apps for education to both save money and improve student satisfaction. For example, Notre Dame realized 1.5 million in savings but this isn’t just for higher ed. More and more K - 12 systems are moving to Google Apps and experiencing savings as well. Oregon State’s entire Department of Education is one such example. By moving to Google Apps they realized a savings 1.5 million per year. When you consider that the Google Suite among other things provides free email as well as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawing, and website hosting, blogging, and video conferencing for FREE, with a high customer satisfaction rate it’s hard to justify wasting money on fee-based options. These substantial yearly savings can go toward a school or district’s technology budget.

  1. Reallocate funding spent on assessments. A report released last fall by the Washington-based Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution calculates states spend a combined $1.7 billion annually on standardized testing. This is happening despite the fact that across the nation students, parents,  teachers, school board members, administrators, and even board of education officials like Texas’s George Clayton argue testing is not worth the cost. Clayton explains “I don't know what the benefit is to education is.  It's a huge benefit to the company that publishes the test, but I don't think its benefited education at all.” More and more of those affected by testing are opting out and taking a stand to restore funding and learning to our schools that can be realized more effectively with less costly and more effective assessments.  If they succeed, this money can be returned to schools to provide students with useful learning devices like laptops.
  1. School resources after hours. An affordable way to ensure students have access to technology outside the school day is to open up access to school technology before and after school and on weekends. In most schools buildings are already open with various after school programs.  Coordinate to have some computers available in each of those classrooms or set up an internet cafe in a particular classroom or library.
  2. Refurbish your old computers with a new technology. No need to toss those old computers. There are new technologies that allow the school computers to operate as "thin clients." So little is required for a PC to function as a thin client that nearly any school computer can become one - even if it's ten years old and missing its hard drive. Companies like Neverwhere are doing this work for a nominal that covers all installation and all maintenance costs for a nominal subscription fee. Once installed, the product turns even old, low-performance machines into terminals that operate at high speeds.

Access to Knowledge = Power
Ensuring that all students have ­access to the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the world isn't just an economic issue; it's a civil rights challenge.

It's our responsibility as educators to provide all students with oppor­tunities to connect, communicate, collaborate and create. Technology brings the world to them and allows them to pursue their passions in ways that teach them that what they do matters. Even when money is tight, there are ways to make access ­possible. All it takes is ingenuity.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.

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