What this rural school district learned from rolling out 250 Android tablets

Credit: Paradox 56 via Flickr

Implementing a mobile strategy in the enterprise can be hard enough. But consider the challenges facing those brave public school districts looking to help prepare their students for the future by putting a tablet in the hands of every student: They need to manage, maintain, and monitor hundreds or thousands of devices for a constituency users who may be disinclined to follow best practices -- which is to say, children -- on a taxpayer-funded budget that could charitably be called "modest" at best. 

That was what Robert Guritz, Director of Technology for the Bowling Green R-1 School District in northeast Missouri, was facing when, two and a half years ago, the school board voted to make achieving a 1:1 student/computer ratio a priority.

Like their colleagues at the Coachella Valley Unified School District, the Bowling Green school board aimed to empower teachers to prepare students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century, especially important in a rural area where a significant number of students don't have Internet access at home. 

In September 2012, the plan would start to become reality, as Bowling Green R-1 School District launched a pilot of its 1:1 tablet project, placing 250 Android tablets from Lenovo and Vizio in selected classrooms across its elementary, middle, and high schools.

But where Coachella Valley had millions of dollars from a bond measure to revamp its IT infrastructure ahead of purchasing an Apple iPad for every student and teacher, Bowling Green had to make its mobile initiative happen on a much stricter budget. 

The plan wasn't to necessarily go the tablet route: Guritz and his team were charged with auditing everything from laptops to netbooks to eBook readers, spending "many months" trying to figure out the best way to balance cost against student learning potential. Lenovo offered to let the school district try its ten-inch ThinkPad tablets -- pre-loaded with QuickOffice productivity software, compatible with the district's printers, and available for less than $300 -- before a purchase, and they were off to the races. 

As for the all-important mobile management software, which enables administrators to maintain a watchful eye on what web content and apps students can use on these tablets, the process was similarly lengthy, but ultimately less stressful: Guritz says that he was tempted by offerings from LANdesk and Microsoft, but the price tag to implement them would have been too high, adding ten thousand dollars or more in costs just to administer those solutions. 

Guritz has been using Novell products to build and manage the school district's network for sixteen years running, he says, and in the end, it just made more sense in terms of both time and money to go with Novell's ZENworks Mobile Management platform.

The choice to tap Novell ZENworks was only made at the end of the summer, with mere weeks remaining before the school year began. But Guritz says that with a little bit of hustle, he was able to enlist teachers to help configure the ThinkPad tablets, giving them the freedom of installing the necessary applications, and restricting the appropriate permissions (including, in most cases, the camera), with time to spare.

Bowling Green's tablet pilot program is relatively limited and mainly focused on the high school, as it stands today: Four of Bowling Green high school classrooms have a tablet for every chair, while four 7th grade teachers are sharing one classroom full of tablets. The elementary schools are participating as well, with some classrooms offering five tablets to share. 

For the duration of this pilot, the burden is on the teachers to develop curricula which take advantage of the tablet's unique features, as part of a joint effort between teachers and administrators to prove the 1:1 program is worth investing in.

One 7th grade class used their tablets' cameras for a photo scavenger hunt, while a social studies class held a mock parliament and used their tablets to draft legislature and tally votes in real time. A math teacher uses their SMART Board to post whiteboard notes to a Wiki that students can access from their tablets. Another project involved actually building their own apps on the tablet. 

There are some growing pains to consider when the pilot concludes at school year's end. While younger teachers are entirely on board with the 1:1 project, more established teachers may require some training.

Also, since there are so few tablets, students aren't allowed to take them home except by special dispensation and a sign-out sheet. That means that there aren't many problems with students putting inappropriate content on the device or trying to sneak around the web filter, but it also means that students don't have 24/7 access to the next-generation learning tools they use during the school day.

The current priority for Guritz and his team is to gather data. The Lenovo tablets were originally chosen because the price was right, and even if they only run Android 3.1 Honeycomb now, they can be upgraded to a more current version of Android down the line.

But if after the pilot, the feedback for the tablet is overwhelmingly negative, Guritz says it's his team's job to address that feedback and find more suitable hardware. For example, some Bowling Green elementary school teachers are suggesting that an Apple iPod Touch may go above and beyond the call of duty where a tablet is currently serving. 

That said, true BYOD probably isn't in Bowling Green R-1 School District's future, Guritz says. Some teachers had tried it before on their own and found it to be sprawling mess, with each student carrying "eight or nine" devices that need to be put on the network, causing "mass confusion." Guritz is solidly of the opinion that standardizing on a single device make management and support a far easier task. 

The program's expansion is pending the school board's approval. But Guritz believes that the 1:1 initiative has the potential to not only deepen and broaden the scope of a student's education, but to actually flip the experience and turn the classroom experience from a lecture into a collaborative conversation.

There aren't any numbers yet, but Guritz says that student engagement is already way up, and kids are more motivated than ever to get their work done. That's an especially valuable metric for a town where Guritz estimates between 85 and 90 percent of students only get online at home from their smartphones. 

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