What Is the True Cost of a 1:1 Device Program? One State’s Careful Rollout Offers a Look

Jeanne A. Curley

As summer vacation winds down, thousands of devices—including Chromebooks, iPads, and laptops—are in the care of school district IT departments. There, the devices have had updates installed, missing keys replaced, cracked screens repaired and decorative stickers removed. Soon, if not already, those updated and repaired computing devices will be returned to students for the new academic year.

This computing device return-and-repair ritual looks different from the end-of-year textbook and library book return that was a staple of decades past. But it’s increasingly common.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of emergency remote learning dramatically accelerated the push toward 1:1 computing initiatives that was already underway. One survey of educators found a jump from about two-thirds of middle and high school students having access to a school-issued device prior to the pandemic, to 90 percent a year later. The pandemic-era jump for elementary school students was even larger: from under half to 84 percent. Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents stated that the number of school-issued devices had increased “a lot” since the pandemic began.

Yet observers increasingly caution that merely having devices isn’t enough—a fact that is borne out by research about the effectiveness of 1:1 initiatives. A pre-pandemic meta-analysis found that 1:1 laptop programs positively impacted student performance in English, writing, mathematics and science, with some mixed results about whether these findings were equally true for students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and whether 1:1 initiatives could help bridge the achievement gap.

At the same time, the meta-analysis described dozens of additional studies showing that laptop programs were correlated with positive teaching and learning processes, including more use of project-based learning and stronger relationships between students and teachers. But these positive teaching and learning benefits didn’t occur in a handful of counterexamples.

That was the case of Birmingham, Alabama, where a 1:1 initiative was imposed by the city government in 2008 with virtually no support for professional development, technological infrastructure, curricula or repair. Significant barriers prevented teachers and students from making wide use of the devices, and the program was eventually dismantled after three years.

In other words, research shows that simply having computing devices is not enough if 1:1 initiatives are to help advance teaching and learning.

That’s a finding that leaders at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) took to heart in designing the Mississippi Connects program to provide and support the use of 1:1 computing devices for teaching and learning to students and teachers in districts throughout the state.

John Kraman, chief information officer at the MDE who has overseen the purchasing of thousands of devices over the years, says, “Getting districts the technology is the easy part.” Kraman continues, “Everybody gets so caught up in the device procurement, but it’s such a small sliver of the overall question of ‘What’s needed to make these devices valuable for students?’”

What exactly are those needed elements? And how can they be baked into the design for a 1:1 initiative undertaken in the midst of a crisis? The cost calculations for the Mississippi Connects program, developed by the state’s educational agency, offers a model for state and district leaders who are modifying, augmenting and redesigning 1:1 initiatives developed early in the pandemic.

Accounting for True Costs of Device Purchase

When schools shut down in March 2020, leaders at the MDE began to take stock of the needs of students, teachers and school and district administrators and staff throughout the state. They knew that students and teachers would need access to computing devices for remote learning, but a survey initiated by the MDE revealed that most school districts in the state weren’t yet 1:1 and didn’t yet have learning management systems in place.

Over the coming months, it became clear that the MDE could likely draw on emergency COVID-19 relief funds to purchase computing devices on behalf of districts. But how much money should the MDE request?

That was the question that the MDE began to investigate in spring 2020 with the support of the Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits and Philanthropy, an umbrella organization representing philanthropic and nonprofit organizations throughout the state.

The cost model for the project couldn’t simply involve “going to Best Buy, taking a $189 Chromebook and multiplying by 300,000,” recalls Sammy Moon, the executive director of the Mississippi Alliance.

MDE leaders agreed with the Mississippi Alliance’s assessment and advocated for a cost model that reflected the true cost of configuring devices so that they were “ready-to-learn.” In other words, devices needed to arrive at schools out of their original packaging, reinforced with a hard case, with all programs, security features and updates installed.

These efforts would certainly cost more than just buying computing devices off the shelf, but they were important for three reasons.

First, they took the burden off of already overburdened district staff and ensured that usable devices would make their way into the hands of students and teachers more quickly.

Second, preparing devices in advance ensured that under-resourced districts would have access to devices with security features that they might not otherwise be able to include in their purchase order.

And finally, centralizing the preconfiguration process ensured that all programs installed were compatible with the purchased devices.

The true cost of the Mississippi Connects program didn’t end when students opened a pre-configured laptop, though. Next, MDE’s leaders considered the cost of the infrastructure that was needed to ensure that the devices could be used for meaningful learning, during remote instruction and beyond.

Support That Extends Beyond Device Maintenance

The 1:1 initiative wouldn’t mean very much if students and teachers weren’t able to access devices effectively. Accessibility was a particular concern in Mississippi. Before the pandemic, the state ranked lowest on the number of broadband subscribers per capita. Indeed, many school buildings lacked high-speed internet access.

In a fall 2021 survey of more than 100,000 Mississippi students conducted by the MDE, over 40 percent reported that digital learning was difficult because the internet connection at school did not work all the time or was too slow. In another survey, 15 percent of teachers reported that the internet available at school was “below average” or “poor” during the 2020-21 school year.

The Mississippi Alliance was instrumental in helping the MDE build a coalition of supporters to pass legislation in July 2020 for broadband availability that would enable remote learning and in-school digital learning.

Nearly two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, the effort to increase broadband availability is far from over. But allocating funding for broadband made MDE’s 1:1 initiative more likely to succeed.

Furthering accessibility through broadband wasn’t the only additional cost beyond the purchase of computing devices. MDE leaders recognized that teachers and staff needed to have the resources necessary for using those devices effectively for teaching and learning. The MDE developed several ways to address these implementation needs, including hiring and training instructional technology coaches to lead one-on-one sessions with teachers in districts throughout the state.

At the systems level, the MDE coordinated with the education data analysis firm BrightBytes to help district administrators collect and analyze data about students’ use of and access to technology for learning at home and at school, and to make adjustments based on those insights.

And finally, with funding support from the Mississippi Alliance, the MDE worked with educators, researchers and external partners to develop a comprehensive Digital Learning Instructional Guide.

The Alliance aided this effort in ways that extended beyond funding by recruiting a national expert who coordinated the effort and championed the guide with both internal and external stakeholders. MDE administrators from different professional development areas lent their expertise to this process, ensuring that the resource is valuable for all settings and use cases represented throughout the state.

Planning for the Long-Term

The Mississippi Connects cost model aimed to make computing devices effective for teaching and learning. But the devices also offer new opportunities for how schools can support learning.

The MDE drew on its strength as a large organization to offer remote professional development on topics that were too narrow to be offered by a single district on its own. In another example, through a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the MDE is offering telehealth and teletherapy opportunities to students that would not have been possible prior to the pandemic.

There are early signs of progress. Well over 90 percent of surveyed students reported that they had access to a school-issued device in the fall of 2021. In another survey, 96 percent of teachers reported a 1:1 ratio of computers to students in the classroom during the 2020-21 school year.

The jury is still out on whether and how this expansive vision of a 1:1 program will pay off in the long-term. But one thing is for sure. The cost of the computing devices that students returned to their schools at the start of summer is far greater than the receipt at checkout at the electronics store. As district and state leaders consider the future of their 1:1 programs, it would behoove them to do a full accounting.

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