The One-to-One Tsunami

from Technology & Learning

It's on the horizon. Will you be ready?

"Anytime, Anywhere Learning" was coined by Microsoft way back in 1995, yet despite exponential advances in technology and drastic price reductions, we're still falling sadly short of that dream 14 years later.

That is, most of us are.

From computer access to software quality to Internet connectivity to high speed to wireless, the digital divide's newest defining characteristic is 24/7 access to a personal computing device. So if you are not at least beginning to consider one-to-one for your school or district, you're heading for the wrong side of the divide.

When Australia's Methodist Ladies' College in Melbourne rolled out the first one-to-one program back in 1990, the world watched with curious eyes. It seemed a luxury, a dream available only to a privileged, wealthy few. Five years later the Anytime, Anywhere Learning initiative reached American shores, with 30 lucky schools partnering up with Microsoft and Toshiba to make laptops possible for each student and educator. Early studies of these programs showed increased student attendance and motivation, expanded curricular offerings, and a leap in educator technology savvy.

However positive, such findings did not provide the "hard" evidence many districts required to commit the substantial time and money resources they'd need to implement such programs. Moreover, with the new layer of state and federal reporting demands instituted by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, technology funds in districts across the country were being siphoned off for the data management systems just needed to keep up. For a time, one-to-one seemed put on hold in favor of administrative uses of technology for schools.

But laptop, table, and other one-to-one programs did not go away. In fact, the past few years have seen a major resurgence of the trend, with a wave of national reports and studies, the founding of the One-to-One Institute, mainstream media announcements of high-profile district-vendor partnerships, and a plethora of public, private, and statewide initiatives.

The New Wave

Today, there are a number of large-scale initiatives—mostly laptop and tablet—in the U.S. According to the American's Digital Schools Survey 2006, 24 percent of all school districts with student populations of 2,500 and up had begun or were planning to implement one-to-one programs.

As with the first programs, partnerships remain key. Henrico County, Virginia's initiative, with Apple and Dell on board, provides 28,000 laptops to students and teachers in grades six through 12. In 2002, Maine worked with Apple to break new ground with the first statewide one-to-one program. That year, all middle school students received laptops, and the program continues to grow with more than 32,000 units now out to students and 4,000 to educators. Following in Maine's footsteps, Michigan instituted its statewide Freedom to Learn program in 2003, and now provides approximately 23,000 HP laptops to students and another 4,000 to teachers.

The newest one-to-one initiatives are being implemented in South Dakota, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. South Dakota's Classroom Connections project involves a pilot group of about 5,000 students with Gateway convertible notebook computers. In Illinois, the I-Connect one-to-one plan, rolled out its initial Technology Immersion Pilot Program last September with Apple laptops for 13,000 seventh graders and their teachers. Pennsylvania's Classrooms for the Future selected 79 school districts and has partnered with CDW-G to provide Lenovo ThinkPad laptops for their $20 million initiative.

There are also many district- specific programs, and quite a few independent and parochial schools. Examples include Cincinnati Country Day School now graduated to Toshiba tablet PCs, Suffield Academy in Connecticut, an Apple school—and the first U.S. high school to require a laptop for every student—and Bishop Hartley School in Columbus, Ohio, now deploying HP tablets to every junior and senior and recognized last year as one of the three winners of the Catholic Schools for Tomorrow Award.

With laptop or tablet programs proliferating, and initiatives such as Nicholas Negroponte's global "One Laptop Per Child" gaining international press even outside the education industry, clearly, one-to-one programs have reached what author Malcolm Gladwell terms "the tipping point." So what has made one-to-one a "sticky" trend when so many others have come and gone?

Self-directed Learning

For educators, the key to one-to-one success is in a well-managed and thoughtfully approached classroom program. When each student has a "digital assistant"—the emerging, more descriptive term for an Internet-connected device—with basically unlimited access, then they can get to the thinking and problem solving faster. At the Peck School, for example, where I am head of technology, students learn the Pythagorean theory and then work with Key Curriculum Press's Geometer's Sketchpad to instantly create and revise geometric visuals to test out ideas. The one-to-one environment also facilitates the writing process by making it easy to write, edit, revise, rewrite, and then email the latest version from home to the teacher, all without having to wait for a lab, classroom, or home computer to become available.

Higher-Order Thinking

The process of acquiring and manipulating information and ideas is shortened when every student has a digital assistant, which means analysis and higher-order thinking can happen more readily.

So long as school is divided into blocks of approximately 40 to 60 minutes, making time a precious commodity, laptops or tablets can help learning because time spent gathering data is shortened. At the Peck School, master teacher Don Diebold leverages the one-to-one environment by having seventh and eighth grade science students conduct experiments with probes to evaluate changes in heat and motion. Each learner has an opportunity to test and analyze results because every student has a probe and a laptop. Previously, probes had to be brought in and connected to a few computers and students queued up to the test station and later worked with paper turning results into charts. Now the process of testing and evaluating is simple and seamless, and charts can be created quickly, adapted, corrected, and redone in minutes.

When students have access to a digital assistant 24/7, their research, writing, calculations, presentations, and problem solving are likely to be better organized, more thorough, and more polished.

More Time on Task

Having a digital assistant in any form to take from school to home will mean better work in terms of research, writing, and presentation. This is because the programs built into the device, such as word processing, spell and grammar checking, and presentation tools, such as Powerpoint, help to correct, shape, and hone the work. The school-to-home element is also vital here because all students have ongoing and equal access to key applications and files without being handicapped by the older software they might have on home computers or at the local library. It also acts as an organizational tool so students can keep all their assignments and thoughts in one place. As well, parental involvement is increased when students can access school-based resources, such as electronic databases like Encyclopedia Britannica, Facts on File, The New York Times online, and other reference material, to cite and check information.

This home-to-school functionality was a key reason the Peck School initially went to laptops back in 1998. Once every student had a laptop with e-mail and an Office suite, homework completion became more consistent.


Despite a good body of anecdotal evidence on the success of one-to-one programs—increased student attendance and motivation, more collaborative professional development, and more efficient use of campus resources when labs are freed up for other uses—case studies provide additional detailed insight into the impact of one-to-one. (See "One-to-One Case Studies" on

At the Urban School in San Francisco, summer technology workshops pair students and teachers for training on project-based learning activities, resulting in an innovative program.

Central Considerations

However, the promise of one-to-one cannot be realized in isolation of other key factors. The following considerations are central:

Plan Carefully. There is no single correct pathway to one-to-one—every school, district, and state must plot its own journey. Those that spend time evaluating their goals and needs, surveying other programs, and aligning their program with district goals, missions, and philosophy find the greatest success. These goals and missions are often very specific, such as St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School in Coral Gables, Florida, which decided that laptops might provide the ideal vehicle to facilitate differentiated learning.

Thinking, planning, involving s communicating, documenting, visiting other schools, and attending workshops and conferences are all important activities. One cautionary tale for us to consider regarding planning and communication is Cobb County, Georgia, which decided to invest in one-to-one without fully informing its taxpayers of all the details of how existing funding would be spent. The county planned to purchase 63,000 laptops using money available for replacing hardware but did not tell taxpayers that instead of replacing hardware they planned to start a completely new initiative. Taxpayers did not like this approach, so they stopped the whole program with a lawsuit. Administrators resigned and students did not receive their laptops.

Explore Funding Options. Note that some schools, districts, and states are tackling the cost of hardware and network products by using E-Rate money, which is tied to the number of students eligible for the school-lunch program, requires attention to several forms and deadlines, and makes filtering mandatory. Forming consortia with other districts to allow bulk purchasing is another route to cost cutting. And leasing equipment can also be a good option—requiring fewer dollars up front and a lower yearly cost spread out over many years. Many large-scale initiatives are in the position of having to request funding every few years, which can be a real nail-biter. The sooner you can fold all your laptop or tablet funding into yearly capital expenditures the better. Michigan, Maine, and West Virginia have all been in the position of renegotiating funding after their initial outlays, and so far all three have successfully continued their programs.

Evaluate your infrastructure. Even if you have a computer network in place—and most schools do—you need to consider the load of adding roaming computers to the picture. To assess this cost, you must consider the building, the hardware, the type of network, the number of computers, and your particular wireless plan (the benefits of laptops or tablets and ubiquitous computing from classroom-to-classroom really rely on wireless). Make a plan for where to install your wireless access points, how to set them up, and where to run more cables. If you already have a network, your cost will involve more access points for wireless capability. Where to place these access points depends on the distance between access points and how many computers will connect to each. Also, think about electricity and how students will keep their devices charged. Some schools set up charging areas around their buildings or hand out spare batteries or power adapters.

Consider TCO. This means not just the cost of hardware, which is sizable, but the requirement for computer support staff and technology coordinators, professional development, electricity, cabling and infrastructure, printer cartridges, and even paper. And sustainability should be part of the discussion. Replacing laptops or tablets every three or four years, continuing professional development, salary increases for support staff and coordinators, replacing network components, maintenance contracts for hardware, and other products all need to be projected year after year.

In a one-to-one environment, a major challenge to educators is learning how to integrate everyday student technologies, such as simulations, instant messaging, MySpace and other social networking resources, into the regular curriculum

Put security measures in place. When first launching a one-to-one program, new security issues need to be addressed, including the physical security of laptops, tablets, or other devices being transported from school to home and other locations. Even if you aren't allowing students to bring home their digital assistants—and this would be unfortunate, as one of the best values of one-to-one is in the possibility of independent learning—students still need to move around the school carrying them somehow. Options include all-in-one cases that stay on the computers, padded backpacks, and custom neoprene sleeves.

Other security issues include protection against viruses, spyware, and unfiltered Internet access. If you have a laptop or tablet moving from school to home and back, be sure the computing devices are equipped with updated protection software. And in this age of WiFi, sometimes homes or businesses adjacent to the school offer unsecured Internet access, so every so often it's a good idea to walk around with a wireless laptop or tablet and see if there are other networks that can be accessed. The availability of these other networks is important to know because your neighbors might not filter their Internet access—and, if you are accepting federal money, you are mandated to provide filtered access.

Make high-quality professional development a priority. The single most important factor in any classroom is the teacher, so if he or she does not embrace laptop, tablet, or other personal-device learning, your program will not be successful. Schools, districts, and states that spend considerable planning and time on professional development are seeing their programs work. A great example is the Irving, Texas, Independent School District, which provides videos made for and by their teachers specifically on classroom management techniques.

Professional development is as unique as different schools and districts are—but there are some important common elements.

In professional development sessions, be sure to address not just curriculum issues, but also one-to-one specific concerns—for instance, how to deal with distractions when each student has an Internet-connected digital assistant at their command during lessons. This issue has been one of ongoing heated debate over the years, with one camp on the side of "we must lock down computers so students can't stray" versus the other claiming, "If we teach interesting stuff they won't be distracted." In my opinion, the reality is somewhere in between. It's always the teacher's responsibility to supervise classroom activities, so walk around, look over shoulders, and check things out—have consequences for being on YouTube instead of researching world history. The bottom line is that one-to-one opens up a world of possibilities for instruction and self-guided learning. For this, we need to strike a delicate balance between guiding, nurturing, and protecting our kids and providing them with the wings to explore, think, and innovate in their own right.

Keeping a close on eye on what students are doing in the classroom is part of every educator's responsibility when each learner has a personal digital assistant. (photo courtesy of Apple)

On the Horizon

The evidence of success of one-to-one programs is increasingly going public, and large-scale initiatives are gaining a momentum of critical mass. Clearly, beginning to think one-to-one is mandatory for districts and states today. The tsunami will be hitting the beach before you know it.

Pamela Livingston is the author of 1-to-1 Learning: Laptop or Tablet Programs That Work.

Tools Enabling One-to-One

Check out the following companies, which offer hardware options for the one-to-one environment


13" MacBook


Area-51 m5550

XPS M1210
Latitude D620

Lifebook A6010

3000 Family Notebooks
IBM Thinkpad T60 and R60

NX570, NX860, CX210

Pavilion dv2000z and DV200t series

VAIO N series

Satellite series



8125 smartphone

Axim X51 series

iPAQ rx1955 Pocket PC

Q smartphone

N800 Internet Tablet




Sidekick II