“Bring Your Own” Vs. “School Provided” 1:1 Laptops

There’s been some great discussions about “bring your own” vs. “school provided” 1:1 laptops on the ISED-L discussion list.  The following are some thoughts.

In my experience, either program could work at a school, but the determining factors are school culture and the targeted objectives of the program.

For example, the “bring your own model” has the strengths of being the most efficient in some ways (such maximum student choice and learning experience when selecting and caring for their own laptops), and good programs can be achieved with a fairly low economic hurdle (such a min-spec laptop such as the Lenovo S205 for £290 being the lowest possible investment).  For the students, the personal machine is also the academic machine, which is also closest to what their college experience will be.  Finally, since 80-90 per cent of students already report that they have laptops they could bring to school, there isn’t a major increase in pressure to “use laptops all day long” to warrant the investment.  (This shouldn’t occur in either program, by the way.)

However, the drawback is that there will be an objective ceiling in a mixed platform, bring-your-own laptop environment.  In our research of intended uses, it’s an achievable objective to have student-selected and maintained laptops (with support and loaners from the school) that have Microsoft Office, MathType, Geometer’s Sketchpad and browsers that will be fine with Google Docs, Moodle or Haiku, Voicethread, world language software, Noodletools and a broad range of web-based apps.  What likely won’t occur is standardized video editing software (such as iMovie).  Also, the idea of having families buy Adobe CS 5.5 isn’t likely to happen, and the complexity of us setting up software servers with expiring license keys would be complex and would knock out the idea of Atom-based netbooks as the entry-level machine.  So might a plan to use Mathematica software, and don’t even think about Logic or FinalCut Pro or InDesign.

Other schools have resolved these problems by simply raising the specs of the minimal laptop to something more supportable, uniform and powerful.  It’s also easier if only a single platform is allowed (such as either Macs or Windows), and then there are the negotiations to work out the software licenses for family-owned machines (which some schools have also resolved).

Once you get to that level of cost and complexity (£900 laptops, £400 of software, insurance, recommended cases), I wonder if it’s not better to switch back to the school-provided model simply because of efficiencies.  If a school buys a single laptop (such as a 13 inch Macbook Pro, white or Air), it can usually negotiate a 10 per cent cost reduction and three-year warranty (so around £100 to £150 is saved per unit).  If the school holds title to the machines but leases them to the families, then site licences or concurrent licenses for expensive software can be more easily used (Adobe, Mathematica, Maya, Geometer’s Sketchpad, Microsoft Office).  If the machines are re-imaged each year, then there is a much stronger chance of reliability as operating systems and software versions march forever forward (and it is a real challenge in that most HS classes are mixes of grade levels and four different years of hardware may be in play).  As for support, we can re-image machines for students, and have identical loaners ready.

So, overall, it’s likely the total cost of the school-provided laptop will be lower, with higher reliability and better software sets.  We have experience supporting these machines with the students as local administrators, which would be essential for HS students, but it is likely we would need to recall them in the summer for repairs and re-imaging, and to avoid the period of greatest likelihood of loss and damage and software corruption (the summer months).  I wouldn’t want to face 468 laptops being brought in the first day of school after a full summer of personal use and travel…

It’s worth noting that “summer use” would also affect the “bring your own” model, and may result in at least two machines being purchased by families to cover four years of HS use.  I’ve developed or worked on four different 1:1 programs now, and the challenge of trying to effectively cover four years of high school laptop use is an exceptionally serious one.  In most cases, laptops used for twelve months for both personal and academic use by students will die after about three years of use, which  leads to increasingly decrepit and hard to support machines in the junior year (if they were new on the first day of ninth grade).  This leads to a quandary for parents– do they buy a brand new laptop for one or 1.5 years of high school, or try to put off the purchase to coincide with the start of college.  It also means that two £900 laptops may be needed for HS, which isn’t an insignificant investment.

This “four year” challenge is interesting.  I’m interested in the idea of the school-provided and maintained “10 month a year laptops” possibly making it for four years, as our current school-maintained laptops do in our middle school program.  If all the laptops are returned at the end of the school year, that means that the school would have the choice of where the new laptops go.  Maybe the new ones go to seniors, with the ninth graders using three year old machines, or maybe the opposite, with senior year students having older machines but a much lower lease cost.  I guess it would depend on intended academic uses, which is what should always drive the type of tools anyway!

The downside of school-provided laptops is that students lose the challenge and freedom of choice, and they also lose the full personal and academic machine experience (since there would always be some limits as to what could be done with a school-managed machine even if they are local admins), and of course the loss of access over the summer.

So, the benefits of fully achieving the more focused/limited goals of the true “bring your own” program are not to be underestimated.  One could say a program that really achieves the more limited goals fully should be considered more successful than the program that partially achieves the higher goals of the school-provided laptops (with full Adobe apps, Mathematica, etc.).  Also, one should not underestimate the higher costs of the school-provided program (for the hardware and licensing and summer work), but overall the necessary tech support day-to-day would be about the same during the school year if you want good support for student machines.

One could say the school provided program is more scalable as time passes than the “bring your own,” but again it comes back to the school culture and what wants to be achieved.  In either case, the laptops should fade out of prominence and become everyday tools and part of the evolving academic goals of a healthy school.  Thinking ahead, the program that most effectively achieves that goal will likely be the best choice.

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