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.
ISSUE - Costly
Going digital is expensive.
Florida needs roughly 1.8 million more devices to get to 1-to-1. At $500 per device, that's $900 million. Districts complain the state isn't supplying sufficient money to pay for the digital transition and, worse, in recent years cut capital funding, which pays for tech devices and infrastructure.
Many districts are counting on plenty of students bringing their own devices to school. Miami-Dade anticipates a quarter of its 350,000 students will bring their own devices. That strategy, however, raises issues of compatibility with school networks and content and a greater potential for students to spend school time on entertainment.
Digital won't necessarily save money. Once you account for the useful life of devices, bandwidth, other infrastructure needs and buying content by the year, digital isn't cheaper than a textbook that lasts several years. "I think the real advantage is changing the effectiveness and success of education," says Palm Beach's Weidenhamer.
ISSUE - Deadlines
Meeting the state's deadlines will be easier for some districts than others, given the wide variance in infrastructure and student-per-device ratios across Florida districts and schools. As recently as 2007, the statewide ratio was 4.36 students per device. Last year, it was down to 2.98. The state only counted laptops and desktops toward the goal. It's now considering counting tablets and students' own devices they bring to school. Larger districts seemed to have more trouble meeting the timeline.
ISSUE - Wrinkles
There are details to consider. Theft and damage are wrinkles in digital education, as is the need to have extra devices, so that if a student's device crashes, the student doesn't lose the school day. As Broward rolled out devices for an initiative called Digital 5, the district alerted pawnshops to be aware of the Broward devices — the district's ownership was etched on them — so they wouldn't accept them from students or thieves.
There's debate, meanwhile, in districts about the merits of tablets vs. laptops. Some districts employ tablets for younger students but want older students to have devices with keyboards because older students should be writing more. Schools have to establish policies on taking devices home, figure out how to charge parents for insurance and how to connect students who don't have internet access at home. Accommodations have to be worked out for students with disabilities who can't use devices.
ISSUE - Training
It all comes down to the teachers and how they use devices. "You just can't throw a bunch of devices into a school and expect it to work. There's a tremendous amount of training and professional development that has to occur," Palm Beach's Weidenhamer says. Statewide in 2012, 29.5% of teacher training in digital was in integrating technology and curriculum. The rest was spent on administrative and management applications (the largest share at 34.4%), basic computing skills, hardware and equipment, networking, tool-based apps and web tools.
Clearwater High School has plenty of experience facing the challenges of digital education that other Florida schools are now confronting. Several years ago, principal Keith Mastorides and the school staff looked for ways to increase the use of digital content at the school. A computer for every student was too costly; after testing devices with students, Mastorides asked the district to let him purchase fewer computers and instead buy each student one of Amazon's Kindle Keyboards, a keyboard version of the company's popular e-reader. In 2010- 11, every Clearwater High student got a reader along with 3G access to the internet, free access to the Tampa Bay Times, a way to check grades and attendance online and a library of books published before 1924 for free.
But the school's approach changed. Now, it has switched primarily to BYOD — Bring Your Own Device — though it still has 300 of its 1,900 students who check out Kindle Keyboards because they don't own their own devices or don't want to bring them to school. The school also has 45 labs each equipped with 25 Kindle Fires. Regardless of device, students still have Kindle accounts through which they can access math and science books and 150 novels.
Just as the school has a blend of devices, it also has a blend of digital and regular education. Mastorides reports a "great increase" in the performance of the school's lowest 25% of students since the project began. "Slowly but surely," Mastorides says. "Any project takes four to five years to really see the results, and this project has evolved so much I think it's going to take longer."
Florida law requires textbook publishers who successfully bid for Florida school business to stockpile books and materials here so that schools can readily obtain them. Since 1917, a major beneficiary of that law has been the Florida School Book Depository in Jacksonville, a 75-employee private warehouse paid for by publishers that now must adjust to a digital future.
Herb Stanley, longtime president and now senior vice president of the depository, says printed material sales have seen a "slight decline" from the recession and from the growth in digital. "It is no question it's making an impact and going to grow, and Florida School Book Depository totally acknowledges that," Stanley says.
He says, however, that print remains "very active" and it's unclear when and whether state education will go purely digital. "I think we will have a meaningful role for some time," he says, adding, "We're prepared to diversify if digital should eliminate our role in the state. Florida needs to do what's best for the students of Florida."