Photo: Miami-Dade County Public Schools"I believe we will not only be first in Florida but also first in the country with a full digital convergence platform." Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho
A digital education for Florida schools
Florida set an ambitious goal of providing one computer device for each public school student. The state is getting an education.
Eliminating the Digital Divide
This school year, Miami-Dade moved assertively to meet the state's aggressive digital education goals. The largest school system in Florida and the fourth largest in the nation, Miami-Dade spent $77 million to build the largest wireless school network in the country, covering 45 million square feet at 400 schools.
The district dropped another $38 million to put digital projectors and interactive boards in more than 10,000 classrooms.
The next step was proceeding with the purchase of 48,000 devices, including laptops, tablets and desktops — the first wave of 150,000 that would take the district far toward meeting the state's deadline of a one device per school child by 2017-18.
But Superintendent Alberto Carvalho put on the brakes. Carvalho announced that he was delaying the purchase, he says, "because of disastrous implementations" of similar digital education programs across the country.
Indeed, from the giant Los Angeles school district to middling Guilford County in central North Carolina, the roll out of digital education flopped this school year. Expensive deployments of tablets for students met with failure, recalls, insufficient teacher training, safety issues and students who easily found ways to defeat security restrictions and turn tablets from education tool to entertainment device. In Florida, last year and this school year, the state missed an interim students-per-computer goal, which this year was to be 2.25 students to 1 device. It's more like three students per device.
In Miami, Carvalho ultimately decided to let the procurement process proceed for 100,000 devices, but only after determining that the district could avoid the problems that other large districts had. "There hasn't been a smooth, productive implementation in any other large district in the country. We will be the largest," Carvalho says. "I believe we will not only be first in Florida but also first in the country with a full digital convergence platform that has the potential of eliminating the digital divide and digital deserts that divide our country by ZIP code."
Plenty of challenges remain, however, as Florida unleashes a wave of computer device buying. Superintendents and technology chiefs at school districts around the state say all the attention on the marquee goal of one device per student obscures a number of key issues that have to be addressed for digital technology to truly help education.
ISSUE - Hodgepodge
Infrastructure build out isn't uniform in Florida. "The easy part is buying the 1-to-1 devices," says Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. "What very few people understand is, it's one thing to have devices, it's another to have wireless access in schools."
As of 2012, half of Florida schools didn't meet bandwidth standards.
ISSUE - Disconnect
Curriculum should drive device selection. But traditional textbook publishers, device-makers and other curriculum providers cling to profitable proprietary platforms that include some apps and offerings but exclude others.
"We've got to get away from the proprietary platforms," says Gary Weidenhamer, director of Palm Beach's education technology department. "We're still functioning under the old print publisher rules."
ISSUE - Hype
Districts have to be skeptical of claims as Apple, Amazon, Lenovo and others knock on schoolhouse doors to extol their products. A Brooklyn, N.Y.-based education tablet and content company called Amplify, headed by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, hypes its product with online videos featuring an unidentified Florida school. But the school, Glades Middle in Miramar in Broward County, doesn't use the program any more. "It was not a good fit for us," says Tony Hunter, Broward chief information officer. He says he's not bothered that the video lives on as an endorsement of Amplify. He sees similar promotions from other vendors and takes them with a grain of salt — and says other educators do so as well.