Miami-Dade Schools

Miami-Dade schools laptop and tablet plan back on track after pause

Two months after announcing he’d paused a $63 million endeavor to provide tens of thousands of digital devices to Miami-Dade students, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday that he’s ready to move again — but with caution.

In a meeting with the school board, Carvalho unveiled a new rollout set to begin in a trickle next month and ramp up in April, likely before students go on spring break. Some 13,000 laptops are to go to elementary students, and about 15,000 tablets to seventh grade civics students and freshmen taking world history.

In total, the initiative will deploy 100,000 devices by August 2015.

However, the distribution of laptops and tablets will now be followed by a series of studies that the district hopes will help avoid problems seen in large-scale tech rollouts in other parts of the country. Carvalho also said the district is contracting with two still-unnamed companies, rather than just one; Apple is not among the vendors.

“We shouldn’t do a full deployment with one single purchase of one device at this point,” said Carvalho. “Nothing across the country tells me that would be an intelligent decision.”

The district is moving to beef up technology as schools across the country become increasingly reliant on computers and the internet. Florida’s high-stakes tests are leaving behind pencil and paper, and teachers are exploring new ways to improve the classroom through technology. Wireless traffic on district systems has almost tripled during the past year.

In November 2012, voters approved a $1.2 billion bond initiative, mostly to upgrade aging school houses but also to expand wireless infrastructure and buy classroom technology. Next month, 10,000 high-tech classroom devices, including interactive black boards, are to be trucked out and installed in the district’s 300-plus schools. One device is to go in every classroom.

At the same time, efforts to install wireless systems and improve bandwidth at all schools are ahead of the March 2013 completion date, Carvalho said Wednesday.

But Carvalho slowed the district’s personal device project after major initiatives around the country flopped just as the district planned to begin distributing the first 35,000 of its own tablets or laptops. Now, Carvalho says only a few devices will go home, including 1,000 this spring and maybe 1,500 in the fall.

“We’ve heard horrendous stories across the country that put into question the security systems themselves,” Carvalho said. “We’re not ready to go full bore with that approach but we ought to move forward in a measured way and study it.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has struggled with the content and security on iPads given to students. In Fort Bend, Texas, the school district scrapped its own device distribution after spending $16 million.

“We certainly don’t want to make the same mistakes other districts have made,” said Board Member Carlos Curbelo, who has urged quick distribution. “Even though some people might think this falls short or is different, I do think we need to be restrictive in taking these devices home.”

Sylvia Diaz, administrative director of instructional technology, explained that the district generally expects to give elementary students laptops, and middle and high school students tablets. The tablets, she said, serve better as high-tech text books.

In August, another 20,000 tablets are to be given to middle school students in the web-and-classroom based iPrep Math program and again in freshman world history. All 100,000 laptops and tablets are expected to be distributed by the original August 2015 deadline, if not sooner, with expectations that smaller purchases and students’ own laptops and tablets will ensure every student has a tablet or laptop.

But before moving on to a second phase next fall, the district is going to study how the first wave went, including how well the devices supported Miami-Dade’s digital content and the hardware needed for local and state testing. The district is also looking at the success of its small take-home program, and the air cards that will be given to students to ensure they can access the internet at home.

Board members on Wednesday still had some concerns, including how students will use the devices once they go home and whether the laptops and tablets will be secure.

“There needs to be some cyber security,” said Raquel Regalado. “I don’t want to scare anyone by talking about Chatroulette (a social media site).”

Contracts with parents are expected to accompany the distribution of the devices. Carvalho, however, downplayed the risks, saying the district has been thoughtful about its program.

“It would be shameful if the vast majority of a conversation about a significant investment of huge educational benefit focused on the danger,” he said. “Because the benefit is so, so, so powerful.”

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