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LETTER: 1:1 Laptop Initiative Needs to be Implimented Right

Although the deadline for the student laptop initiative sign-up at the High School has passed, there is still much that needs to be done to ensure a good program.

Written by Muriel Kramer

Jonathan Clark knows a bit about technology, and while he is not in favor of the schools 1:1 laptop initiative for next year’s freshman class, if it happens he’d like it done right.  To that end he spent the better part of the last year working with the Superintendent Jonathan Landman, Technology Director Kathy Dooley, High School Principal Alyson Geary as well as other members of the community to assist in the implementation of the idea, that is until his help was no longer wanted.

According to a write up in the Boston Business Journal a few years ago, Clark is “A computer programming prodigy, he had created more influential technology as a teenager than most programmers do in their careers.” Later in the same write-up,

“Clark had pioneered several programs that capitalized on multiple new technologies. As a teenager, he created software that enabled newspapers to standardize their newly digitized fonts and sold part of its code to Adobe, setting the stage for the Acrobat program many consumers use today. At age 15 he was hired by Interlingual Technologies, a linguistics translation company later bought by Lionbridge, where he made cross-platform programs never seen before and led teams of engineers twice his age.

So when he saw a niche for a program that would offer cost-effective, easy-to-implement, multinetwork-compatible software to small-business owners, he created Sine-Wave Technologies Inc. of Hopkinton to meet that need. Clark describes it as handing businesses the wireless "glue" they need to develop products and services.”

Clark understands technology better than most, and he has many concerns about the 1:1 laptop initiative that current parents of eighth grade students are now mulling having received a letter May 25th  that they must respond to by June 4th—their choices are to 1) opt in and lease an Apple MacBook Air for either $238 or $345 per year, 2) opt in and provide their own personal laptop which necessitates buying all software required by the school or 3) opt in but plan to borrow laptops provided by the schools. There is no opt out alternative; there is no obvious mechanism for parents to say no. That is one of Clark’s issues. He hopes enough parents join him in selecting option #3 electing to borrow equipment from the schools effectively opting out and insuring that the program will not be implemented this year; thereby, allowing enough time to better and more fully vet a successful technology initiative for the schools if in fact that is what parents want to see happen.

Clark sent a letter to local media outlets that included a link to his write-up of concerns that attracted the attention of several parents in town that met  at Clark’s office to discuss the initiative, their concerns and what to do going forward. The parents gathered for the impromptu meeting share some concerns:

  • This initiative does not eliminate textbooks; kids will still be lugging heavy backpacks plus a laptop.
  • There is no clear strategy, no core curriculum plan for implementation.
  • The School Department is planning to buy parts and repair the machines in house; according to Clark, “a huge support nightmare.”
  • The Schools could implement a less costly and equally effective, perhaps more effective system, with iPads versus laptops
  • The Schools will own the laptops and the software; the parents will just be leasing them.  “Who owns the intellectual property,” asks Clark?  What if some kid does what I did and writes a piece of software that turns out to be worth a lot of money?  That’s an issue that hasn’t been worked out.”
  • There is no plan to automatically back-up work for the students.  According to Clark, this is an easy to solve issue but still unaddressed.
  • Apple develops a different primary version of the operating system every 14 months effectively meaning each year students will have a different version creating additional support and implementation hurdles.
  • This year’s eighth grade parents are effectively making the decision for everyone; there has been no opportunity for broad community discourse and buy in.
  • School fees are already enormous creating a hardship for many families.

Parent Dawn Ronan asked Dr. Landman specifically about eliminating textbooks and was told that online books are expensive; therefore, textbooks will not be eliminated immediately. They will be replaced by online books over time as books are targeted to be replaced in the future. Parent Meg Gaughan, a teacher herself, worries both about the lack of a clear curriculum strategy for implementation but also makes the point that the system in place is working very well. She wonders what the specific goals are for improvements in the curriculum using the 1:1 laptop idea.

Parent Beth Malloy expressed concerns about the costs and the lack of implementation strategy currently in place; parent Jackie Potenzone and Holly DerKinderen share her concerns. For others that have questions, for parents of eighth grade students who aren’t sure they know enough or don’t support the initiative yet, they encourage those parents to opt for choice #3 hoping to table the initiative for this year. They also encourage interested or concerned parents to attend the School Committee meeting Thursday June 7 in the Middle School Library beginning at 7:00; for those that want to speak on this, public comment comes at the beginning of the meeting traditionally.

Dawn Ronan welcomes phone calls or emails from parents that may have questions or concerns on this initiative; mdcronan@verizon.net, (508)435-8794.

Clark acknowledges his approach to ideas of this nature as being aggressive and challenging; “my approach is to take someone’s idea and pick it apart; my style is to rip it to shreds. If there is enough left after my questions, then there is probably a good idea underneath.” According to Clark, Geary at Hopkinton High School got tired of me poking holes in her plan. Ultimately Clark believes, “If it (the initiative) is so important, if it’s that critical, it should be built into the budget.”  Additionally, parents need to know there is no turning back. “I asked once if there was any going back once this was started, and I was told ‘no’.”

Dana Hall June 06, 2012 at 12:22 PM
I totally agree. Amongst all the valid points issued in this commentary, one that is a hot-button for me is: The district has chosen Apple as their vendor of choice for laptops. Apple makes great products, they know it and they are priced accordingly. Apple is a closed HW & OS platform, as such once the district has chosen Apple , a transition to another vendor will be difficult. The long term goal( in theory) is to be web-centric and OS neutral. I can envision that as the program expands to include all schools and all grades, it would be preferable to have an infrastructure which allows competitive bidding to keep the costs down. Picking Apple is NOT a wise long-term strategy. Did the school committee approach Microsoft, HP, Dell etc. and say "hey, Apple is offering us these terms....what can you do for us ?" I love Apple products, but with 4 kids , the choice is obvious...I can get a really good laptop at Staples, Best Buy etc for $400. I would venture to guess that with savvy business negotiation, the district could get PC's at a much lower cost than what Apple is providing. Aren't all those "loaners" being purchased by the district ? I believe there is a total lack of financial due diligence in this program plan.
Sean O'Donnell June 06, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Dana, you make a very good point. Apple makes a great product and the price matches it. For parents that opt to send their student to school with their own laptop, it does not need to be a Macbook, they can choose whatever type of computer they are comfortable with; be it Mac, pc or tablet. This totally doesn't solve the problem that you bring up about online and open source software but it does give the parents a way to have their child participate at a lower cost.
UglyHat June 06, 2012 at 05:48 PM
I would add to the list of concerns the intellectual property of others and appropriate content. What will be allowed on these devices? Music, e-books, photos? Will children be allowed to browse the internet, text or IM others using these devices? What controls does the district have to restrict illegal or illegally obtained content or even age-appropriate content on these devices? How will the district deal with lawsuits (or accusations) from record companies, artists, authors, etc. should these controls prove ineffective? This may be a good idea for a school district with the financial means, but it still needs to be carefully planned and executed.

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