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A digital education for Florida schools

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.

Digital Issues

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.

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.

Digital Issues

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."

Clouded Future

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."