In the past several years, school districts have leapt into 1:1 computing models. Yet some districts have experienced embarrassing problems.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s billion-dollar rollout—the nation’s most expansive and highest-profile attempt to achieve 1:1—hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Dozens of iPads have disappeared, and students have figured out how to hack the devices to access websites intended to be off limits.

Further, the efficacy of the tools and apps on these devices has proved uncertain at best. The same article reported that “in 2009, the Education Department studied how math and reading software influenced student achievement. The study found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes and the control group was ‘not statistically different from zero.’”

According to a recent Education Week post on the LA rollout, “The major ‘lessons learned’ from the problems, the LAUSD officials said, included recognition of the need to better involve parents in the effort from the outset; focus more heavily on ‘digital citizenship’ training for students, parents, and teachers; and better gauge schools’ readiness before deploying devices.”

To offset these blunders, the LA school district is making some critical changes to the program. The next set of schools to receive digital devices must demonstrate “instructional readiness” and show they’re prepared to “deploy the devices safely.” They’ve partnered with Common Sense Media to develop “digital citizenship lessons” for LA students and parents, with guidelines on media and technology use.

In addition, the LA school system has started thinking beyond Apple and is adding laptops and Google Chromebooks to their collection of iPads, beginning in September. On the other side of the country, a school district has abandoned the laptop idea altogether after a five-year attempt. The Hoboken Public Schools, citing problems similar to LA’s —including theft, breakage, and hacking—recently shelved its 1:1 program.

“Superintendent [Mark] Toback inherited the laptop program when he arrived in 2011. At first, he tried to keep it going,” wrote Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

“But he faced skyrocketing costs, which hadn’t been budgeted for. The $500 laptops lasted only two years and then needed to be replaced. Toback said new laptops with more capacity for running educational software would cost $1,000 each. Licenses for the security software alone were running more than $100,000 and needed to be renewed every two years.

And the final kicker: the whole town was jamming the high school’s wireless network.”

None of this would likely surprise James Bosco, the principal investigator of a 2013 Consortium for School Networking project titled “Participatory Learning in Schools: Policy and Leadership.”

In an interview with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Bosco explained that computers weren’t the “game changers” in K−12 schools many hoped or assumed they would be.

“The idea was that if we put the devices in schools, they would be a catalyst and good things would happen because the computers were there,” Bosco said. “With some notable exceptions, what happened was that we put the technology in schools and schools continued doing fundamentally the same things, but using computers to do it.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Bosco said he’s identified some districts that “are making serious efforts to keep the promise of what smart use of digital media can do to help us provide productive and engaging learning environments for our kids.”

As Alan November, cofounder of the Stanford Institute for Educational Leadership Through Technology, wrote in “Why Schools Must Move Beyond One-to-One Computing,” “Adding a digital device to the classroom without a fundamental change in the culture of teaching and learning will not lead to significant improvement. Unless clear goals across the curriculum—such as the use of math to solve real problems—are articulated at the outset, one-to-one computing becomes ‘spray and pray,’” meaning “‘spray’ on the technology, and then ‘pray’ that you get an increase in learning.”

In November’s view, the question administrators ought to be asking isn’t what to buy, but how to redesign the culture of teaching and learning to effectively support and integrate new technology. A successful 1:1 program would incorporate a digital literacy curriculum and rely on cross-disciplinary cohorts of teachers collaborating on innovative concepts.

That kind of across-the-board effort characterized Leyden High School District 212’s successful 1:1 implementation. The Franklin Park, Illinois, district owes its accomplishment to “full infrastructure and administrative support,” including teachers who overhauled their instructional delivery methods.

That district, by the way, had been working on implementation since 1999, noted Mary Jo Madda in EdSurge.

In the meantime, more than enough cautionary tales will keep cash-strapped school districts from putting the cart—or iPad—before the horse.

Photo/ Massachusetts Secretary of Education