Within three weeks starting on Sept. 16, every student at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School will have the latest-generation Macbook Air, free, on what amounts to a permanent loan from the school district. The district also plans to have an iPad for every fifth and sixth grader this year and next, then broadening that to fourth through ninth grades the following year.
The $814,000 Macbook initiative is part of a four-year, $3.2 million contract between the school district and Apple Corp. that by the 2017-18 school year will land either an individualized iPad or a Macbook in the hands of every single Flagler County student from grade four and up, while every student from kindergarten through third grade will have access to individualized iPads or Macbooks at school. That’s itself part of a five-year, $20.5 million plan to improve education technology in the district.
In essence, the district will be spending $4 million a year over the next five years on technology, with $6 million of that in salaries and the rest in actual computers, smart classroom set-ups, computer labs, networking, software, and so on. The initiative is paid for through sales tax dollars. (See the plan ion a detailed breakdown below.)
A year ago, voters approved by a large margin the renewal of a half-penny sales tax supplement in Flagler County to continue funding technology improvements in schools.
The school board approved the four-year Apple lease plan unanimously Tuesday, with only a few reservations about the scope of the program and the absence of formalized policies and regulations that will frame its development. Those policies and procedures are on the way.
“I know we’re in a process of moving quickly, but proceeding with the purchase before I have policies in place with the regulations is problematic for me,” Board Chairman Andy Dance said. “But we’ve had a discussion, we have already qualified a lot of questions that parents have had about the liability issues and some of the questions about using them and some of the restrictions and things.” He wants workshops to define the policies and involve the public at every step. “We’re on the right path, definitely want to push forward and have the policies ready for review as soon as possible, and have some public input on those.”
Board member Colleen Conklin was very concerned about the immense additional workload on district technology staff, once thousands of additional computers and iPads are in students’ hands. FPC has its own student help desk already, making technical support built-in there. Otherwise, students will have access to an online help desk and will have to seek out technical help at their respective school.
Ryan Deising, the district’s technology director, who’s spearheading the initiative, is not concerned, saying the technology department already provides support for the users of some 9,000 devices, not including printing and smart-classroom devices.
“To add this amount I think is something we can accomplish,” Deising said. “One of the benefits I think to this is that having these devices in a one-to-one scenario lends themselves to be maintained better. Typically what we run into issues for support is when we don’t get timely notifications sometimes of issues because we’ve put extra computers in a cart, so we’ll get to the point where there’ll be two or three machines that we’re having an issue within a cart. What we’re hoping with his is we’ll get more of a timely response, more timely information as far as when we have issues with those devices.”
Until now, the district has made computers and iPads available to students mostly by stacking them up in carts and distributing the devices for specific uses, or day-long uses, then collecting them at day’s end. Except for the youngest students, the district is moving away from the cart system.
Deising outlined what he and the board perceived as the benefits of this latest Macbook initiative, starting with the basics: the computer that will be placed in students’ hands is the latest generation of Macbooks, issued in June, with a battery life of upwards of eight hours, and a price of $800.
Any devices no longer necessary in high schools will be redistributed in the middle and elementary schools.
“The rationale behind the decision to move in this direction,” Deising said, “is we’re in a position to make a very positive impact on digital learning. This scenario provides students with devices that are both able for the students and teachers are ready to go with. It also allows students to create digital content in a familiar environment,” meaning the Apple systems. “We have a lot of investment in time and energy as far as on the training side of the Apple tools.”
The district will begin distributing the Macbook Airs to high school students starting on Sept. 16. For the following three weeks, technology staff will schedule open houses at Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas high schools for students and parents to pick up the devices and see them set up through an orientation.
And yes, there will be paperwork, because parents will have to sign something of a contract, or an agreement, that covers liability and security issues. For starters, there will be a $50 technology insurance fee. That’s in case of theft or breakage. Parents can opt out. But if they do, they’ll be entirely responsible for the cost of repairs, or the cost of the machine, if it’s stolen or lost. Parents who can’t afford the $50 fee can have it waived for hardship.
If parents don’t agree to any of the district’s terms, students will be granted day use of Macbooks, allowing a student to check out a Mac every morning, and turn it back in at the end of the school day.
But there will also be costs associated with serious damage and other forms of abuse of the machines. A first offense will require a $100 co-pay. A second offense will trigger a $150 co-pay. If there are further breakages or abuses, the student will be required to be a day user of the computer.
The district hasn’t clarified whether the offenses add up for the duration of the student’s possession of the computer, or whether the clock goes back to zero at the beginning of a new school year—or who will have possession of the computers over the summer. Nor is it clear how the district will ensure that families that move out of county and out of state—a chronic issue throughout the year—can be tracked down if they still have possession of the computer.
The Microsoft Office suite, which includes Excel and PowerPoint, will be installed on all the Macs. Students will be allowed—and in fact encouraged—to customize their computers with such things as custom skins. The district is open to having applications downloaded to individual student computers, using their own individual iTunes accounts, but the details haven’t been worked out. But the students will not have administrative privileges on their computers.
Over the years Apple has made its wining-and-dining marketing prowess pay handsomely in its relationship with Flagler County schools as board members and staffers have made annual trips to Cupertino, Apple’s headquarters in California, where they have been lavished with attention, training and deals that Apple makes difficult to resist.
Deising said the Apple deal has inherent benefits other companies can’t provide. “One of the big things is the quality and durability of the equipment,” he said. “The Apple equipment in my experience has been the most easy stuff to support. The durability is top notch. If you look at how they’re manufactured, they’re very, very durable, particularly the aluminum models that the Macbook Air that’s part of this proposal is.”
He specified: “We didn’t just land on moving forward with Apple on this. We constantly are looking and evaluating alternative solutions. We’ve tested multiple platforms, we’ve had Nexus tablets that we’ve worked with, we’ve had Chrome books that we’ve worked with, Netbooks, we’ve actually deployed on a larger scale, obviously the Macbooks that we have in carts as well as the one-to-one deployments that we’ve done successfully, and also we’ve piloted iPads in one-to-one as well as in carts. So we’ve really looked at a larger scope of opportunities.”