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Who should pay for 1:1 devices?

Should schools be providing necessary tech tools to students or do students need a greater sense of ownership?

Last week, ZDNet's James Kendrick started a series of posts about the gear that many of the contributing editors use in their daily lives. As I rattled off my various bits of tech for him, I mentioned the Tuff-Luv cases that I've come to consider essential add-ons for all of my mobile devices. I'm not particularly kind to my myriad devices and my kids invariably manage to use (and abuse) them as much as I do. My Kindle Fire, iPad, and MacBook Air all sport Tuff-Luv cases, and I don't mind spending a bit of money on them. Trust me, my devices need them to withstand jamming into my bag, slippery-handed kids, and, in general, the rigors of life in the Dawson household.

So what does this have to do with paying for 1:1 devices? A few things. First, James' article got me thinking about the physical protection that 1:1 devices need and the hidden costs associated with them. Even a $199 Kindle Fire deserves a screen protector (count on a couple per year) and a basic case of some sort. While it doesn't necessarily need to be a Tuff-Luv Embrace (although, as an aside, I highly recommend them both for protection and for the way they allow users to safely hold the Fire one-handed), at least a minimal silicon cover should be giving least a little protection from bumps and drops. Conservatively, we've now taken a $199 device and made it a $220 device. If every student in a 500-person middle school (small by many standards) was issued a Fire with these minimal protections, the school would see a $10,000 jump from the original cost of the deployment.

Then, of course, there are the devices themselves. They need protection in the first place because kids generally range from careless to malicious in terms of their treatment of school tech resources. That same 500-person middle school would have already spent $100,000 on Kindle Fires, even before it started picking up protective covers. 1:1 Chromebooks would run closer to $150k. iPads? Getting very close to quarter million dollar territory. We won't even talk about the MacBook Airs that Apple is promoting for older students.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that these aren't worthwhile investments. In fact, I very much believe that they are with the right pedagogies behind them. But worthwhile doesn't necessarily mean that schools (which, in most cases, means taxpayers) should be footing the bill. This isn't actually a political issue for me. Rather, it's an issue of a sense of ownership and the changes in behavior and attitudes towards the tools that can result from students and parents shouldering at least some of the costs directly.

I watched two carts of Intel Convertible Classmates go from awesome little multipurpose elementary teaching tools to unusable maintenance nightmares because so many kids had popped off keys, drawn on the touchscreens with pens, or scratched the screens with overzealous scribbling. These same machines are used around the world in jungle villages, desserts, and  far-flung regions where schools generate electricity to charge them by leading cows and donkeys around manual generators. Classmates last for years in these wild conditions; certainly they should be able to withstand a couple hundred American primary school kids, right? I'm afraid not. Too many kids take the tools for granted in ways that students in small Indian villages simply do not.

The cure for this? Give students at least a small share of the financial responsibility and a sense of ownership for 1:1. Leave shared computing models behind. Let students at least buy their own protective cases (how many book covers have you helped your kids put on over the years?). Even in districts where high property taxes fund 1:1 programs fully, charging students and parents for insurance premiums and ensuring that students have a device that they can call their own (and for which they are responsible) prevents the sense of entitlement and "taken-for-grantedness" that seems to categorize so many technology deployments in schools.

There will be plenty of students who simply can't afford to make contributions to these programs. Scholarships and subsidies can be offset by volunteer efforts, community involvement, or even by working with school IT staff to help service and maintain devices. Even at the elementary level, responsibility can be imparted quite easily in non-monetary ways. They key here is not so much defraying costs for schools (although that will certainly happen), but preventing the sorts of carelessness and abuse that necessitate those bulletproof Tuff-Luv cases in the first place. These devices represent major educational investments; they should be protected, cared for, managed, and paid for accordingly.