The Keys to 1:1 Success: Ten Tips From the Experts

Educators and students in a one-to-one setting


At Tech & Learning magazine's recent SchoolCIO Summit, a group of CIOs, superintendents and other district administrators gathered to discuss their experiences with one-to-one technology initiatives. Participants in this discussion ranged from those who have been involved in 1:1 for more than 5 years to others just launching an initial implementation. They varied in terms of the devices selected, the grades involved, and other details, but agreed on the following keys to making one-to-one work:

#1: Know Why You’re Doing it

It is vital to keep the focus on the learning, not the technology. According to Shelby Womack, executive director of technology and digital learning for Stephenville ISD in TX, “All too often people start with a focus on the What or the How of 1:1. We were diligent in our efforts to always redirect the conversation back to the Why!” In Stephenville the goal was to personalize learning, with technology helping teachers to increase the depth and complexity of instruction by identifying what each individual learner needs.  

Other goals described by SchoolCIO participants included equitable ways to help all students (not just those with access to technology at home):

  • Become career- and college-ready;
  • Prepare for information-intensive fields that characterize today’s world;
  • Become creative, collaborative, reflective learners and communicators.

As Casey Wardynski, former superintendent for the Huntsville (AL) City Schools explains it, “By affording our students these digital resources we seek to further their development as creative, self-directed learners who have the requisite skills, knowledge and behaviors to dominate challenges of the 21st Century workplace.”

#2: Research and Plan

Start by involving a wide range of stakeholders in the planning process and paying visits to existing one-to-one districts before launching your own program. Scott Harris, technology director for Wisconsin’s Neosho School District, offers the following advice: “Don’t try to do this on the fly! Study, read, form book-study groups, visit other districts and ask tons of questions! Find out what works for them and what doesn’t work.  Then pick a platform and devices that accomplish your goals and remember that the most important aspect of this is not the device but how the students use it.”

#3: Build Your infrastructure

Make sure you have adequate bandwidth and network security before launching your program. Rod Russeau, director of technology and information services for Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove, IL, elaborates: “The district’s network infrastructure must be robust enough to support the increased access levels required by the initiative.  It must be invested in and updated regularly to stay ahead of the exponential increase in connectivity and bandwidth needs.”

#4:  Have an Implementation Timeline

Although some of the districts participating in the SchoolCIO discussion launched a full K-12 implementation in a single year, many others chose to phase their programs in gradually, starting with a few classrooms, schools or grades in order to “work out the kinks.”  For example: Community High School District 99 started with 1:1 in 30% of their classrooms in the first year; Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish chose one grade (third grade) to begin with; Henry County Schools in McDonough, GA, began with a single 1:1 school this past year; and Athens City Schools in Alabama started with whole-classroom sets on carts in all of their classrooms in order to test out the infrastructure before assigning devices to individual students.

Regardless of the speed of the implementation timeline, the recommendation is to avoid referring to the initial phase as a “pilot.”  As Russeau puts it, “Calling it a ‘pilot’ implies the program is just being tested and may or may not continue. As someone who spent 20 years in the software development industry, I referred to it as a ‘field test’.  A field test is the final step before releasing a product, where you make sure it’s functioning as designed, performance is acceptable, user support is in place and so on; and then make adjustments as needed.  This helped solidify the message and our commitment to 1:1 Learning.”

#5: Model from the Top

District and building leaders must serve as models. They play a key role in keeping the focus on learning, being motivators and cheerleaders, providing the right resources, and cultivating a school culture that supports and encourages change.  “We knew early on,” says Womack, “that if we wanted to change our instructional practices and integrate technology in a transformative manner we had to first create a culture where the fear of failure would not inhibit teachers and students from trying new things. Our superintendent has gone to great lengths to ensure that staff members feel empowered to think differently and explore new methods.”

LaShona Dickerson, technology director for Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish School System, reminds us not to forget the building leaders.   “Planning and collaboration with the principals is extremely important, “she says. “It garners buy-in.”

#6: Get Teachers on Board

While supportive administrators are one key to the success of a new initiative, getting other stakeholders on board from the start is equally crucial. And no stakeholders are as important to the equation as the teachers.  There was widespread consensus among SchoolCIO participants that putting technology into the hands of teachers months – or preferably a full year – before a deployment is extremely helpful, as it offers them time to explore (individually and collaboratively) and get comfortable with the technology before they begin using it with students.

#7: Provide Ongoing PD

A commitment to staff development that continues well beyond your initial launch is another variable that is essential to a 1:1 program’s success.  Effective approaches include: coaching; staff meetings to share successes and discuss challenges; study groups; and a variety of other opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn from one another.

“Long-term, ongoing staff development is critical and it’s essential to recognize the costs for this up front,” says Athens City (AL) School System CIO, Chris Hamilton. “The power behind our 1:1 program is not the device but the professional growth that has occurred as a result of extensive professional development. The program has been more about changing instruction than it has been about the technology.  The use of the devices has provided a vehicle for retooling pedagogy and is creating a culture of trust and ‘risk-taking’ among teachers.”

This sentiment was echoed by other participants in the discussion, including Scott Harris who explained, “We invest heavily in PD which, we believe, is absolutely key. We are not afraid of changing the culture of our classrooms as well as how staff are treated and held accountable in evaluations for themselves as well as their administrators. We have built a working environment, over the last 3 years, that you’re either ‘on the bus or off the bus’. We’ve seen turnover, but overwhelmingly for the positive. Our first administrative book study was Anthony Muhammad’s Transforming School Culture, which really set the tone for our culture changes as well as Inevitable by Schwan & McGarvey. Two great places to start. The kids know the devices...they are natives...invest in your teachers! If you don’t, you’ll fail.”

#8: Decide What Role (if any) BYOD Will Play

Several of the 1:1 districts that contributed to this article say they ruled out BYOD because it ran counter to their digital equity concerns.  In Downers Grove, for example, Rod Russeau explains, “We allowed BYOD access before our 1:1 program, but once we went fully 1:1 last year, we stopped providing BYOD access.  Our feeling is that, for now, the 1:1 devices provide students the access to information and resources they need, and frankly we also do not want to tax our infrastructure unnecessarily.”

On the other hand, Brian Blanton, assistant superintendent for technology services in Henry County Schools in McDonough, GA, says his district allows BYOD on a wireless network that specifically supports student-owned devices; and Andrew Phillips, supervisor of technology for the Cleveland City Schools, in Cleveland, TN, adds: “We allow teachers and students to use personal devices.  We feel that teachers and students should be able to take advantage of any tool that meets their educational goals.”

#9: Ensure Ongoing Funding

Beyond funding an initial launch, it’s important to have a plan for sustaining your program financially. Possible approaches include:

  • Leasing that allows you to swap out equipment after a few years (typically every 3 years);
  • Charging parents a small annual fee to help defray costs;
  • Generating local revenue, with taxpayer approval, through a small sales tax or earmarking of funds (as in Texas with a TRE – tax ratification election);
  • Treating technology costs as recurring line items in the regular budget.

#10: Monitor and Share Your Results

Once stakeholders are on board, you will want to keep them in the loop and share evidence of progress towards the educational goals your 1:1 program was designed to meet. In most cases, student engagement is a key goal. While engagement levels are not as easy to track as test scores or other purely quantitative goals, SchoolCIO participants shared lots of examples of progress in this area, measured through everything from SAMR walk-throughs to stakeholder surveys.

In the Athens City Schools, for example, Chris Hamilton explains that, “Students are now sharing their work with their peers, publishing, and creating in ways they have not done before in school.  This type of sharing and collaboration is creating a real-word, engaging atmosphere for all of our students.  The systemic solutions we are seeing are being led by teachers and are creating a culture of community never before present in our district.”

For those looking for more numerical measures of progress, SchoolCIO participants suggested monitoring time on task and other behavioral measures.  “Since implementing our digital conversion, our graduation rate is up from 66% to 88% and remediation rates for our graduates in their first year in college are down by a third,” says Casey Wardynski. He also points out that disciplinary incidents have dropped dramatically in the classroom and on the school buses (which have Wi-Fi access) since the program launched.

Brett Clark, director of technology for the Greater Clark County Schools in Jeffersonville, IN, adds that his district now has a “digital storyteller” on staff to film relevant activities and provide community members a window into the powerful changes taking place in the classroom thanks to 1:1 technology and new approaches to teaching and learning.

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