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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

South Dakota Schools: Save 80% on Computers!

The New York Times runs an interesting article on the changing computer economy. If South Dakota's high schools are going to continue moving toward assigning every student a laptop computer, they should read this article. In an era where a proposed 0.7% increase in the state budget feels like fiscal Armageddon, our schools could achieve an 80% decrease in their tech spending. Here's how:
  1. Throw out those Tablet PCs. Yes, spinning the screen and touching it to move the cursor is really cool. It also costs over $1300 per machine.
  2. Replace them with $200 netbooks.
  3. Instead of loading each machine with Office and other expensive software, take advantage of cloud computing, free services like Google Docs, where students can access all the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation power they need for high school. Businesses are using cloud computing and online software services: Arista Networks chief Jayshree Ullal says innovation like this is saving 80% on her tech budget. (Ullal is all about cloud computing: read more on her blog!)
So let me break out the back of the envelope: assume Madison High School needs 400 laptops. Buy $200 netbooks instead of $1300 tablets, and you've got $440,000 in savings at Madison alone. If every school in the state's classroom laptop program made this switch, we would save millions, enough to restore funding for Birth to 3, the South Dakota Arts Council, the Cooperative Extension Service, and a few other projects Governor Rounds has put on the chopping block.

So we can keep doodling on our screens with $55 pens, or we can save millions of dollars. Hmm....

Information technology and economics are changing. Our public school tech budgets should change to take advantage of the newest, cheapest technology.


  1. Cory, You just wrote something that makes sense. Congrats! I assume you will pass this on via e-mail to the folks at Pierre? I know I will.

  2. Cory:

    Back up your need for computers in schools. Show me studies that back up the notion that computers raise test scores.

  3. Hang on, Anon: the question of whether we need computers in the classroom in the first place is a discussion well worth having. But I'm picking my battles here. If the "we've gotta have tech!" mindset is irrevocably ingrained in our education establishment, I'll settle for practical steps that will realize 80% savings in that tech budget.

  4. That's an awfully big if, Cory. Getting rid of the computers where they do not help the students is step one. Getting the students to think is job one.

    We aren't so far from the computer being smarter than we are.

  5. Elkton, SD School District is all over this. We start our netbook pilot in 3 days for our seniors. The realistic price is actaully $400 dollers for the Acer Inspire one /w Windows, a real hard drive and 6 cell battery (5 hour charge). Also using Open Office. We are going to be deploying at 400 bucks a student including the software.

  6. There still needs to be proof that the expenditure of computers for each student does anything to improve test scores or computer abilities. By the time students are in high school they are quite literate on comuters already. Just have a school computer lab instead of individual computers. Even at $200 per this amounts to a great expenditure for schools when they are complaining they don't have enough funding.

  7. Forget laptops in the classroom all together. They are a giant waste.

    I vote for livescribe:


    Seriously, everyone should be handed one of these the day they go to school. All of the power of digital recording of your writing with no battery life issues/distractions.

    Very inexpensive, nearly idiot proof. Add you get the second bonus of actually writing things down which lead to better cognition vs. typing.

  8. Anon 11:56: I disagree. Politically, there is no if about it: our governor, department of education, and administrators seem deeply committed to the idea that tech is indispensible. I agree there is a big "if" about whether all that tech provides any worthy educational benefits that good conversation and books can't. I'm just saying that's a different debate altogether. I'm just saying if you have a school that is dedicated to putting computers in the hands of every student, there may be a way to meet that goal and spend (waste?) much less money on that tech.

    And I can't wait to hear the details about Elkton's program!

  9. Good discussion- I have some comments from personal experience. Apparently no one here supports K-12 kids. $200's won't cut it. You need longer term accidental damage plans. Just try getting parent's to pay for purposeful damages--I've tried. Hey- it's public education. We can get our machines trashed and the "public" has to compensate and we have little recourse- a sad truth.

    1. Netbooks have great potential and I've seen wonderful success with them in grade K-4. 5th and up- the screens are too small and 50% of students dislike the netbooks. Netbooks cannot run many of the desktop apps needed for certain curricula. Cloud computing doesn't work if education vendors don't support that--yet. I'll still use netbooks, but screen size needs to increase (and some web apps won't run on the cheaper models) for 5-12.
    2. VDI- Desktop Virtualization (and soon Laptop Virtualization). Didn't see that listed, but I believe this is a great route to save on hardware and licensing costs in addition to substantial support savings. My bet is here for most non-video intense applications K-12. This is where my money is going.
    3. "Doodle Pens"? What? This is a joke, I hope. We want to provide new mediums for all learning styles using online collaborative 24/7 learning platforms. If you think these computer initiatives should be used for writing reports you are missing the point. I'd scream that my tax dollars were being wasted if that were the case-- and the teachers doing just "reports" should be moved into better teaching styles with the tablets. What Professional development, collaboration and continued efforts are being conducted at the district level to ensure success throughout?
    4. Not having Tablets- Lets attempt to annotate and highlight areas quickly and easily without the tablet successfully. Possible, BUT very annoying. Higher math- nice try. Clunky at best and you'll need software to try and do this well (quickly). A few netbook tablets should be coming on the market soon that will hopefully address this (currently) expensive technology. I'd love to have a netbook tablet coupled with VDI- now THAT would be the perfect mix...maybe 3-4 years?

    Technically speaking, most netbooks don't support the A wireless standard, and certainly not N yet. Not sure if anyone understands that B/G just won't work well with 500 machines in close proximity.

  10. Sorry- I just need to chime in once more...
    Computers don't raise test all scores, but they can improve education if used effectively. The current evaluation/assessment process is broken and NCLB with good intentions has only hastened this-
    Imagine the Super Bowl. Can the average person truly predict with certainty which team will win without prejudice? We have seasons of statistics and data on each team and player, yet the outcome is often hard to guess. Would we ever base our outcomes for a favorite sports team- or favorite player based on a randomly chosen single away game during the season? How many would believe that a single mid-season game is, in fact, a true depiction of the teams’ strengths and weakness throughout a given season? If this were the case, what would happen to the morale and interest of fans and players?

    Compare this to education- One test, often mired with problems, is the true depiction of the system? Principals evaluate teachers less than 0.5 percent of the school year. How effective can that be? Unless we move to true standards/goal based grading systems and have a true play-by-play database of the activities in the classroom you will only see minor improves on occasion. NOT leaps about bounds.

    NOW lets talk about professional development and constant collaboration (or the lack of). Meetings can be called with general ease in a corporate situation. Improvement requirements set forth in meetings are often set out in measurable data-sets so that stakeholders can keep score on progress. This is also true in education. However, in education, meetings during the day are almost non-existent because our customers cannot be left to fend for themselves for an hour without significant planning. Can you imagine teachers leaving their classes with 2nd graders left to fend for themselves?

    I foresee teachers using tablet computers to document their daily processes and “tagging” relevant data, lesson plans and assessments within the class to share with "the world" rather than becoming a silo of information never forwarded on to all stakeholders. I foresee continuous improvement processes and collaboration movements for staff. They want students to succeed, but the culture has been engraved for centuries.

    Go ask your child's teacher- What standards does he do well with? What type of learner is my child? If they can't run a report to depict this within 2 minutes...you ought to talk to me offline. We need improvements in the system now. It's not the individuals that I respect- teachers, administrators. It's the outdated system.

  11. Interesting, but it seems to me that "cloud computing" is just another way to say Central Data Processing, Mainframes, and dumb terminals.

    Might be time to look at the "one computer one child" computers or laptops that stay in school but with students running open office from a flash drive and a USB or wireless USB connection. Much easier to haul around a USB flash drive the size of your thumb than it is to haul a laptop around.

    The state of South Dakota and all schools should be using Linux with Open Office, Thunderbird, and Firebird. These are not good economic times for making Microsoft richer when free alternatives are available.

    ))))) Doug Wiken

  12. I hadn't thought about the mainframe analogy, Doug, but now it seems obvious. Of course, "dumb" termainals today could still be made much more functional than the original dumb terminals.

    Boot and run from USB -- that could save a lot of cracked screens! But then you've also got to have workstations taking up space again in every room, limiting that facility flexibility. Trade-offs, trade-offs.

    Linux and OpenOffice -- yeah! Finding open source alternatives for all of our software is a heck of an idea in the midst of an economic downturn. Just last night, a fellow grad student pointed me toward Zotero, a pretty good open source substitute for proprietary bibliography software like EndNote.

  13. "But then you've also got to have workstations taking up space again in every room, limiting that facility flexibility."

    The "workstations" might be the same kind of mini systems Elkton is buying however.

    But also as others have indicated already, the question of whether or not computers serve much real purpose in high schools and grade schools needs to be clearly supportable and I don't think the case for that has been made yet.

    )) Doug Wiken

  14. Cory:

    I'm surprised to see you haven't wrote about the importance of the Arts in our state, after Governor Rounds' proposal to cut all funding to the South Dakota Arts Council, as you are an artist. This seems to be a concern that few South Dakotans hold near to their hearts, and one, until recently has gone vastly uncovered.


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