A Tablet on Every Desk: What you need to know about technology in the classroom

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House Speaker Becky Lockhart recently proposed to spend up to $300M on technology for Utah students including issuing devices directly to students. One of the more immediate reactions was predictable: how do we pay for it? As a life-long technologist, it looks like some of the technical issues are being glossed over. Here’s some of the things to consider once details of Rep. Lockhart’s plan become available next week.

The obvious question is what problems technology can solve that other methods cannot. I think one of the biggest promises is in open source textbooks. The state of California started a project commissioning the creation of 50 open source textbooks whose contents will be released into the public domain. Teachers would be free to swap out chapters, author new chapters, or modify content as they see fit. Rapid iteration of the source material means you’re not stuck using outdated textbooks to maximize your investment or re-purchasing them too frequently. As many times as California gets things wrong, I think they’re on the right track with this one.

There’s also a lot of opportunities in gamification. The unexpected indie game hit Minecraft, which has sold in excess of 35M copies across multiple platforms, has been used to do everything from electrical engineering to architecture to creating works of art. Cody Sumter of MIT probably only half joked that “[Minecraft creator] Notch hasn’t just built a game. He’s tricked 40 million people into learning to use a CAD program.” There’s even programs that teach children in elementary school to write their own modifications for the game using Java.

But what can you use to enable these uses? Ereaders often make a great fit for textbooks. They’re cheap, durable, get weeks of battery life, and usually support highlighting and taking notes. Unfortunately, they’re also somewhat feature-limited (which IT people managing the devices might consider a feature). Tablets are rich on functionality, but they’re also relatively easy to damage, usually only get one full day of battery life, and are harder to lock down. Typing without an external keyboard is a chore, and iPads are also very attractive targets for thieves. Laptops give you the most functionality, but they also are the hardest to manage and most expensive.

Whatever device you choose, there’s also going to be a lot of demands placed on technology infrastructure. Getting even a dozen wireless devices to communicate reliably can be a chore and the problem only scales when you have thousands of them on a single school campus. You’re also going to need very solid Internet connections to back that wireless up, not to mention content filters, device management servers, and a crew of IT staff at each school for troubleshooting. It would be very easy for those costs to quickly exceed that of the devices themselves.

So can it be done? Yes, but probably for a lot more than an initial $300M investment, even if those initial investments yield some long-term savings. As Utah is quickly closing in on a million K-12 students, that chunk of change is probably just a down payment.

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