Affordable Computing Alternatives to Transform Classroom Education

Ten years ago, the idea of giving each student a laptop was viewed by many as “the” thing that would transform education in developed markets. Today, that idea has become the dream of many developing nations as well: give students devices and amazing things will happen.  While exciting, especially when those devices are donated, I’m left with a nagging question: Is one laptop per student overkill for the vast majority of schools?


I started thinking about the use of technology in the classroom about 15 years ago.   Since then, I’ve worked at Microsoft to develop templates for teachers to use with Microsoft Office, left to become the Director of Technology for a school in Bellevue, Washington, and since returned to Microsoft to apply my time 100% to figure out how technology can help teachers do their jobs faster, easier, and more effectively.   More recently, I’ve visited 6 countries and over 25 schools over the last 7 months, and have seen firsthand the power that technology has to open doors for students who otherwise may never see the world outside the four walls of their classroom or home.


Here’s what I’ve learned:


·         Simply putting technology into the classroom, or into the hands of students, does not work. In fact, without the proper leadership, ongoing professional development, and community buy-in it can negatively impact learning outcomes and teacher morale.

·         Start with three things: Learning outcomes, learning outcomes, learning outcomes. The investment in technology needs to be made with a clear vision of what the goals are along with a realistic view of the resources available to apply against achieving those goals.  Not the year that technology is purchased, but over 3-5 years.


There are a range of affordable and innovative education solutions to consider, each appropriate in their own right depending on the goal.  These can span from a “first PC” in the classroom, to shared access with a single PC via technology like Microsoft Multipoint, to eventually achieving a one-to-one student-to-device ratio via a lab or mobile laptop cart.




A couple of examples that work from my  travels: Located in Digos City in the Philippines, the Jolencio Alberca Elementary School is using Microsoft MultiPoint (watch a video) to enable multiple students to share a single PC using multiple mice. 


This solution requires just a computer, a projector, and multiple mice and locally relevant content. Teachers found that story-driven lessons, designed with an element of interaction, helped students rapidly engage and connect with education content.


Santa Maria School, located in Bogota, Colombia, has an incredible headmaster with an inspiring vision for how education that is student-centered, supported by technology, can raise children from poverty and help create a more peace-loving society by increasing teamwork, collaboration, and an expanded worldview for students. The middle class school had just 12 computers for a student body of 600.  


But this headmaster was getting the most out of those 12 computers and students had the access needed to acquire the basic digital literacy skills that would give them the opportunity for a better life.  Why? Because she had the vision, leadership, clear learning objective outcomes, and resources required to sustain those 12 computers.


In his book, “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom,” Stanford education professor Larry Cuban found that the majority of teachers employed technology to sustain existing teaching patterns rather than to innovate, with only 10% using their classroom computers more than once a week.  As an industry, we have a responsibility to ensure we are acting in the best interest of students, recommending the right solution based on educational outcome goals, available resources, leadership and vision and teacher capacity.  If a government’s goal for a community is digital literacy skills, they don’t need every student to have a netbook—a lab environment where students are scheduled to attend once a week will do just fine.


Transformation happens in small steps.


Tracy Immel

Worldwide Director

Primary/Secondary Teacher Programs


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