What The One to One Digital Initiative Really Looks Like

Board 2013

Picture this. You’re a fly on the wall on Friday morning, and you’re in one of any of our Huntsville City Elementary Schools. As all elementary students (and I hope parents) are aware, Friday tends to be the default testing day in school. It’s the day when students are tested on all the things they learned during the week.

The weekend presents a natural break to the typical elementary schedule. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they learn new stuff. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, they master new stuff. On Friday, they demonstrate that mastery by taking tests. It’s just the way the world works. And so Friday is testing day. It might cover spelling, reading, math, science, grammar, or social studies, and it makes for a busy day on even the best of days.

Plus, it’s Friday. Like the whole rest of the world, our kids are tired and can’t wait for the weekend.

Earlier, in Huntsville City Schools, when a teacher gave a reading test, the class would take out their books, open them, read a passage, and then answer a series of questions about that passage on a piece of paper so the teacher could evaluate their reading comprehension. Perhaps a student or two might need to sharpen their pencils, but otherwise getting ready for the test takes a minimal amount of time. If the test had 20 questions, the total time, start to finish, to administer the test might take 20-25 minutes.

It was a tried and true system that had been honed to a pencil point’s sharpness. It worked.

Fast forward to the present and the wonders of computer-based testing. It’s Friday, and the teacher is getting ready to take that same reading test.

First, all the students have to get their netbooks out, turned on, and booted up. If they followed the suggestions of the district and shut their computers down at least once every night, getting the computers ready for use probably takes about 2-3 minutes. (The beauty of a textbook is that it doesn’t need to be booted to be useful.) While waiting for all 26 of the computers to boot and be ready to use, one student raises her hand. She says, “Ms. Doe? I left my computer at home.” As Ms. Doe moves to help her get set up at the old desktop left in the room, across the room, two more of students raise their hands to say that their batteries only have about 4% remaining on them. Either they forgot to charge them, or the batteries that are now about a year and half old are starting to lose their ability to hold a charge.

Being the master of multitasking (as all teachers are), Ms. Doe asks them to move to the carpet under the smart board and plug in to the outlet there.

Once everyone has a booted computer, Ms. Doe asks them to find the Pearson Reading site. As it’s April, this doesn’t take that long anymore, but at the beginning of the year, it was rather difficult.

You see there isn’t just one single unified Pearson curriculum that you click into on the computers. There’s a site for reading. There’s a site for math. Then there’s a site called Socrative that’s also used for computer-based testing.

Once everyone gets to the proper site, then Ms. Doe has to log-on herself and authorize the test. Usually this is a fairly simple and quick process, but when the entire school is trying to test using Pearson’s site, there are problems. Either the Pearson site cannot handle the load, or the school’s brand new and constantly monitored wireless network can’t.

So the class waits, as patiently as a group of 26 nine and ten year olds can manage, while Ms. Doe attempts to understand if the issue is on the school’s end or on Pearson’s end. Either one is certainly possible.

After about ten minutes, the site begins to work, and now the students have to connect to the test. This involves refreshing their Internet Explorer browser. (For some reason the district has decided that Microsoft’s browser, you know, Gates’ browser, is the only one that students should be allowed to use. It doesn’t matter that the Pearson site opens quicker in Firefox or Chrome, it doesn’t matter that many of the sites that teachers need to use really don’t open in Internet Explorer, that is the only browser allowed to be use on the district’s computers anymore under threat of suspension or even explosion.

Once everyone has a browser that has refreshed showing the available test, the class can finally begin to take the test.

And so, the class who’s patience has already been tested waiting for the system to work, finally begins testing about 25 minutes after they thought they were starting the brief, twenty-question test.

On a good day, that would be the end of the story. The class would complete the test and move on to something else. Perhaps one of the other tests scheduled for the end of the week.

But this wasn’t a good day.

First, one student raises his hand. He’s completed question 14, but for some reason, there’s no button on his screen to click next as there was for the previous 13 questions, and he has no idea how to continue with the test. While she’s working with him, one by one, Ms. Doe begins to be approached by students carrying their netbooks up to her. It seems that the rest of the class is having a similar issue.

Since this happens, oh, nearly every single Friday, Ms. Doe announces that those who are having issues moving forward in the test need to click the save button, close Internet Explorer, and restart the browser.

It seems the new WiFi network that was installed over the summer and that the superintendent has claimed has been “tweaked” ever since has brought all of the testing, on a simple 20 question reading quiz, to a screeching halt.

Literally. When a class of 26 are all stuck during a test, the collective sound is quite similar to a set of faulty brakes on an 18-wheeler, trying to stop at the bottom of Airport Road as it heads to the parkway.

It isn’t pretty.

After everyone in the class has closed their browser, restarted it, connected again to the Pearson site (assuming that the WiFi has stopped hiccuping), they can now get back to the quiz.

Luckily the Pearson people are used to this happening, so most of the class is able to start right back where they left off.

One girl raises her hand to let Ms. Doe know that she can’t go back to the question she was on. She can only go to the question before. So again, Ms. Doe has to work one to one with the student to help her calm down and start over.

When a student believes she’s lost her work, there often follows a fairly panicky few moments for her.

Luckily, there’s a caring human being in the room who can help calm her down so she can continue a quiz that everyone should have finished 15 or 20 minutes earlier.

When the class is able to settle down and continue the test, most of the students restart the test by re-reading the story, after all what was supposed to be a fair quick test is now taking them right up to lunchtime.

They re-start the test, and hopefully this time, they’re able to complete the quiz and see how they did. What should have taken about 20-25 minutes has now taken close to 90 minutes of class time to complete.

I’m sure it’s been a while since many of my readers have taken a test, so let me ask you this: when you really need to concentrate on a project at work, is it helpful or harmful to the quality of that work when the Internet crashes, your computer needs to be restarted, and 25 other nine or ten year-olds are jumping around in your office?

Do you, as an adult, find such an environment helpful?

I didn’t think so.

That’s what placing computers in our classrooms (at a cost of nearly $30 million) has brought us.

That’s what Pearson, HP, and Microsoft have introduced into the classroom.

I’ve asked around, and while this assessment isn’t scientific, the consensus seems to be that it isn’t unusual for a teacher to spend about 30 minutes a day addressing technical issues that our students are facing with the computers.

At 180 days in a school year, 30 minutes a day adds up to a loss of nearly 14 days. That’s almost three weeks of instructional time lost to having our teachers play computer technician.

So that’s what we’ve lost: concentration, money, and time.

What exactly have we gained from the 1:1 digital initiative?

Beginning on April 15th, all of our elementary schools will begin the end of year testing. Every one of them will be taking far more involved tests than a short reading quiz.

And every time the board has asked the superintendent for reassurances that our network will be up to the task of keeping everyone online, his response has been, shall we say, less that reassuring.

It has basically been, “we’ll take care of any issues that we face.”

Hmm, like the district has taken care of network issues that have been on-going since August?

It’s April and we still can’t rely on the computers to take even a simple quiz without interruption.

It’s time to turn them in, not purchase 2,000 more of them as the district approved on Thursday night.

And to those who at the beginning of the year said, “We just need to give them time to work out these issues,” it’s April. If it isn’t fixed by now, it isn’t going to be fixed.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. Really enjoyed this post. I’m uber techy, but I worry about totally leaving the hard texts for digital devices, for many of the reasons you addressed.

    1. I love technology too. Always have since I was a little kid. And I use technology in my classroom every day.

      But this is a nightmare.

      This isn’t fiction, nor is it just my best guess about what might happen. I’ve seen this for myself in multiple schools across the district.

      I have been told that this is the case in classrooms that I haven’t been in as well.

      Thanks for reading, and, as always, for your input, Melissa.

  2. Maybe the idea is to crash the public school system entirely.. sort of the Cloward-Priven for schools. Glad my kids are grown and gone, I’d not go quietly into this night. sheesh

  3. This week my classroom FINALLY became 1:1 with i-Pads. As far as testing goes, my students will be using old patched worked desk tops. Unreliable internet, computers that are outdated in a room that is supposed to maintained by a contract employee who knows NOTHING about computers. I already know what will happen- the internet connection will go down and then-chaos. Oh wait that happens everyday!

  4. Recently, our students took the star test and experienced many of the same issues you described here. The test would just freeze up in the middle. Several students restarted as many as seven times. What should have taken 45 minutes took over 2 hours and many did not complete the task. What a disaster. Students were frustrated and fearful. Teachers were pulling their hair out. Turn out there was a problem with the main computer at central office. Hope they get these factors straightened out. Students cannot do their best work under these conditions.

  5. I think you exaggerate a bit here Russ. I mean, really… this transition has been smooth as silk and fine as frog’s hair. Sure, there have been a few hiccups along the way. I mean, how embarrassing was it for the school system when they had the massive Video Teleconference to train teachers how to use the new digital curricula and the network crashed so teachers at other schools missed an hour and a half of the training? But little hiccups like that happen. It wasn’t like immediately following that training teachers didn’t get to go to classrooms and log on and try the software. Yes, when they got to the classrooms there wasn’t enough bandwidth for the teachers to get online, but they solved that quickly enough by rotating who logged on. And just because most of the elementary teachers in town have abandoned the Person site for math and returned to textbooks doesn’t mean the site is bad, it just means the teachers don’t understand technology.

    1. Take your rose-colored glasses off, Michael. You apparently haven’t received the feedback that supports what Russ is saying. Try talking to teachers who have to deal with these issues every day…they aren’t making it up. Try talking to substitutes who can witness to the issues from a variety of classrooms. Try talking to parents who have to struggle through this with their kids. Ask the kids about continued occurrences of game-play on school computers and access to unapproved sites….still! If these were “hiccups”, then day-by-day these things would improve. But, these things have generally not improved since day one.

      If teachers are abandoning the Pearson site and returning to textbooks, then the message to you should not be that teachers are stupid or ignorant. Instead, the message is that the technology isn’t forming to the user…the user is forced to form to the technology. When that’s the way technology is implemented, it is never successful.

      1. There really needs to be a sarcasm key. Can’t some of the engineers in this town develop one for us. 🙂

        Michael was being sarcastic, bonehead. 🙂

        But I do appreciate the support.

  6. The scary thing about all of this is that my job is on the line. If my students don’t do well on the STAR tests I could be fired. It bothers me that my job is dependent on what a 7 or 8 year old decides to do on any given day of the week on a test that is culturally biased, using computers that are not up to date, and with an unreliable internet connection.

    Please keep spreading the word about this!

  7. Thank you for revealing a truth that needs to be told. Dr. W may think it sounds impressive to be able to say that our school system uses computers, but, in reality, the computers have slowed down the learning process. Each of my children has been unable to use his/her laptop for up to a month at a time, lost essential information/work for projects due to computer problems, and had too many delays in classroom work to count. Also, the computers have provided a huge distraction from real work.

  8. “For some reason the district has decided that Microsoft’s browser, you know, Gates’ browser, is the only one that students should be allowed to use.”

    I believe this was done because of the security issues with Firefox and Chrome. Modern browsers have “private browsing” features that allow web surfing without recording the browsing history, and of course, the history files are fully editable. IE apparently allows the administrators to lock down these features so that the browsing history is preserved (assuming a kid doesn’t know how to hack around it). I was told Firefox does not give this degree of control to the administrators. Assuming this is true, I am fully supportive of Firefox being removed. If we’re going to have these stupid laptops, I at least want my kids to know that I can check their computers and know where they have been going on the web.

    1. If they’re relying on history rather than MAC address and site logging, they’re further behind technically than I had assumed. I agree that they need to secure the computers and limit the access that the students have, but I’m not at all sure that Firefox cannot be locked down as sufficiently as IE. There are several add-ons to securely track history under Firefox that are freely available.

      But your point is well taken. I agree that the security of these systems is fairly pathetic. Honestly, all it takes to circumvent most of the district’s security is to install Windows on a USB Drive and run windows from there. (It would likely boot faster anyway.)

      But the MAC address would still remain the same. I would assume there is software to circumvent or spoof a MAC address on a computer as well, but I’ve never researched that.

      There were many teachers who had certain sites set up to run on Firefox (as they didn’t work well with IE: Blackboard–an online delivery system that I use all the time with my students, but as far as I know isn’t used in HCS–runs terribly on IE). No one was informed of the deletion of Firefox until after it had happened.

      Once again, poor communication is the standard around here.

      1. And my understanding is that many kids have (as you suggested) resorted to using Firefox from USB drives. It’s not “installed” on the computers, but they’re accessing the entire “no-no-zone” that HCS assured parents would be off-limits. The irony is, if HCS would just install the program on the system WITH the controls that you describe, fewer kids would be bootlegging their own version, wherein there is no systemic control.

  9. FYI, Russell:

    Just an editorial note — What was published in the Mountain Gap Grapevine regarding the annual standardized testing is incorrect. It actually doesn’t start until sometime in May.

    1. Ben,

      Thanks for the heads up, but I didn’t actually base anything I wrote on the Grapevine, but rather information I’ve received from other schools and from the district itself.

      Interestingly, they are nearly as many different versions of their testing schedule floating around as there are standardized tests. 🙂

  10. Michael, loved the sarcasm, as it is one of my essential tools! Have to admit, it raised the hair on my neck for a moment there! Here’s another tidbit….this weekend I was talking my my neighbor’s daughter who is in the 4th grade and asked her if any kids play games or go on websites they should be on. She rolled her eyes and said “are you kidding?” She said that there are some kids in her class that are creating their own websites in order to bypass the school filters! And these are 4th graders! Can you imagine what the middle school and high school kids are capable of? This school system is becoming a total embarrassment!

  11. As a retired teacher, I have been very interested in this. It seems to me if they were going to make this transfer to computers, they should have started slowly, in the 1st grade and added a grade a year.

  12. Yeah, but according to al.com’s editorial board, every kid in the state should be issued a laptop because books are, like, so totally old-fashioned.

    That editorial, by the way, was written by yet one more guy who doesn’t have kids in school.

  13. My child rides Durham Bus #5 (in case anyone reading from HSV Board cares,) and the last time I checked, it was one of the few remaining buses that didnt have Internet yet, allowing him to be unable to do homework during the 2+ hours he spends on the bus everyday.

    No worries, though. I’m sure he will pass the time by just popping a movie into the DVD-Rom drive.

    And they need laptops with working DVD drives, WHY? (And don’t answer for software updates. The system could easily have software updates downloaded automatically, first thing each morning, when the child first connects to the school Internet Network.)

    1.) How much money could we have saved by purchasing something like 10″ Dell Mini’s, without DVD drives? Netbooks can be easily purchased brand new with warranties (especially in BULK) in the sub-$200 price range.

    2.) Who BID these laptops out, and who decided that a huge 17″ (or whatever it is) full-size laptop was the best solution? It’s really OVERKILL,…Not to mention that it’s WAY too big, too expensive, and much more easily broken,….And I cringe everytime I watch my 70-lb child dragging the big d*mn thing around in a backpack.

    3. We use a FREE program at home called “K-9 Protection” that allows me limit/monitor our home computer. Yes, it is FREE. And, YES, it is easy to use and install. And, NO, I’m not a rocket scientist working in the I.T. Dept at HCS. (Insert Sarcasm Here.)

    IDIOTS. Just plain IDIOTS.


    1. I’m also curious if anyone knows any Numbers on who/how many Employees we trained and put into place in HCS I.T. Dept for all of this.

      Seems like we went from virtually NO Internet in our schools to this “Digital Initiative FrontRunner of Education System” awful quickly, without proper Staffing, Training, and Education in place.

      From a business standpoint, not a good decision. Just my opinion.


      1. He goes to ASFL.
        Bus picks up at 6:55 AM at Monte Sano, and returns at 4:00 PM.
        I think it stops at Chapman, Blossomwood, and AAA, as well.
        Not sure where they go.
        Maybe they just drive around… LOL

  14. And exactly the argument I proposed at a Board meeting prior to laptops infiltrating our schools. Wardynski apparently can’t handle failure and didn’t like being told by a systems engineer how to plan and craft a new process such as this. His reply? “I happen to be an engineer as well, and ..blah, blah, blah..” Really? Perhaps he forgot that his degrees are in economics and public policy. Uh, not a whole lot of engineering in those, but like many politicians, he’ll say whatever he has to at the time. Dusty, you are right. This system was rushed in, ill-planned, and made worse by a tremendous lack of corroboration and teacher training. And let me remind you, there are other school districts that have attempted this transition and terminated it after a couple of years.

  15. Sorry to veer off the topic a little, but hasn’t it been mentioned in one of these blogs that there is a push to get students into as many AP courses as possible to make the school system look good? My son is currently on the borderline of failing math in high school. The teacher however has recommended that he take the AP math course next year. Say what? Math is certainly not his strength and now he is being “encouraged” to take the AP course for next year’s math? Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    1. I would push that teacher to justify his/her recommendation for placement in the AP course. If your son isn’t ready, placement in an AP course isn’t going to help.

      There have been numerous reports of this in an effort to look good on paper with little to no consideration of what is right for the student.

      This is the central issue I have with the decision-making process this district has followed both before and after Dr. Wardynski’s arrival. Students never factor into the decision-making process.

      No one ever asks, “Is this good for our students.”


      1. There certainly seems to be a push to get students in the AP course…even to the point of “counselors” telling them that it’s better to make a “D” in an AP course than it is a “B” in a non-AP course. There is much pressure placed on kids to keep their recommended AP courses even to the point of giving our misinformation. For example, “Oh, little Johnny….if you DON’T want to take this AP math course I’ve signed you up for, you’ll have to have your parents schedule a meeting with the principal to discuss this. They’ll have to come down to the school to have a *discussion*.” In our case, our son was signed-up for several AP courses and we opted out of all but one….didn’t have to go see the principal. A person with a low GPA isn’t going to get even a first look by the competitive college system, regardless of what classes they took.

        I believe this is all because schools systems are never asked “How many students in your system are taking AP classes and what is their average grade?” They are just simply asked (by who?) “How many students are taking AP classes?” The measure of performance, or the measure of “looking good” seems to be “how many”, not “how are they doing?”

        Ultimately, the parents need to know what is best for their children and not farm this out to the school administrators.

    2. AP’d Off — What you are describing is very similar to how universities approach the enrollment of minorities. All they care about is getting their numbers up so they can brag about their student diversity. The fact that a disproportionate number of these students are leaving school without degrees (because they were admitted to schools they weren’t academically qualified to attend) is beyond the concern of the college administrators playing the numbers game. In many (maybe most) cases, these same students would do well at a school they were truly qualified for, but what is good for the students is nothing the colleges are concerned about.

  16. Interesting discussion with school offical. True, they do want to “push” the AP course taking in order to look good. The only advantage to taking an AP course is that introduces a depth of the subject required for taking the ACT. Taking the “basic” courses will not teach students everything they will need to know for the ACT test. So here’s the catch-22: Colleges look at GPA and ACT scores. If you take the “basic courses and get a higher GPA, your ACT score will suffer. If you take the AP courses, your GPA will suffer but you will at least recognize the material on the ACT test (no guarantee you’ll do well though). Bottom line, let the TEACHERS teach the kids and evaluate their strenghts and weaknesses. Laptop “teaching” and AP-pushing recommendations are only hurting these kids!

  17. One other thought: there is a fee associated with the AP exam. Students (at least at my son’s high school) who are enrolled in AP courses are REQUIRED to take the exam. Someone is making money on that, regardless of the student’s performance. Who is it? Our check had to be made out to the school, but I assume they’re paying someone else.

  18. That’s a good point. I was also told that “you can take the basic/non-AP course if you prefer, but your child will be in a class with predominantly slow learners and progress at a slower rate.” OK, so now I’m really getting P’d off. So I either push my child into an advanced class to struggle with the “brighter” students or place them in a class known to teach to the “slower kids?” So now we’re categorizing the learning abilities of a student simply by the class they choose to take? I remember when I was in school, we had what was called “Track 1, Track 2, and Track 3” levels for the courses. Track one was the “AP” level course…for the advanced students. Track 2 was the median level where most kids were placed. Track 3 was for the slower learners who required more guidance in grasping the concepts. This worked. Now we have silly laptops to take tests and do homework. And when you get a correct answer, it responds with “Good Job!” or “Great.” If you get it wrong, it says, “oops, why not try again.” And if you get it wrong a second time, it allows you to just delete that question and request a similar one to start over (and keep guessing your way through it until the odds allow you to guess right!). Is it just me or does anyone else have a problem with this system? Where is all the opposition?? Parents..wake up! Your kids are NOT learning….they are simply being processed through to the next level.

  19. Awesome… Just AWESOME…

    So, here it is…

    It is 8:30 on a Saturday Night….

    I’m out working in the yard, and talking to a neighbor.

    I come inside to find my 11-year-old to do some chores, and he is plugged up on his HSV SCHOOL-ISSUED LAPTOP (which his sister informs me he has been on for quite a while now, if not “ALL DAY” while I was gone!)

    My wife is sick in bed, asleep, with a severe sinus infection and a Fever. She literally passed out after getting home from work at 6:00 PM tonight.

    I just asked my son to do the dishes and mop the kitchen floor, and got a lot of whining and “blah, blah, blah” BACKTALK,…. (Come to find out, it’s because he doesn’t want to stop his GAME that he is playing on the HSV SCHOOL-ISSUED LAPTOP.)

    Thanks a LOT, HSV Schools. He was playing a game called “REALM OF THE MAD GOD.” (See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realm_of_the_Mad_God ….)

    I don’t WANT this in my home. I didn’t ASK for this in my home.

    I DO NOT WANT YOUR DAMN COMPUTER IN MY HOME, UNLESS YOU CAN ADEQUATELY SECURE IT from reaching outside Websites & Sources that I DO NOT ALLOW in my home.


    I resent the HELL out of this being in my home, and YOUR inability as a School System to properly FILTER the content that is allowed.

    Dr Wardynski, (because I know this blog probably gets back to you through “word-of-mouth”)

    This is MY CHILD, and a CHILD that could have been out playing with your OWN children on a beautiful day like today…. Oh, WAIT… That is…. IF he were he not plugged into a laptop all day while his mother and I were gone and unable to “babysit” him from the Technology that YOU introduced into our home!

    You can easily laugh at my comment of “a Child that could have been out playing with your OWN children today….”

    I probably wouldn’t blame you.

    BUT, Guess what? Big surprise.

    I am your NEIGHBOR. I live on Monte Sano Blvd, just a few blocks from you. You don’t know me personally. We have never met.

    Our kids have NEVER MET.

    Probably because they are inside playing GAMES on the laptops that YOU had issued to them.



    1. Just had a good talk with my son, Gabe, (Yes, that is his REAL NAME, and he goes to ASFL….. I have nothing to hide.)

      He said that the same Game he was just playing is BLOCKED when he is on the school’s Wifi System, as he has tried, and it won’t let him.

      Sounds like a SOFTWARE problem, Dr. Wardynski, and not a “NETWORK” Problem.

      I am turning this Laptop in on Monday.

      Sending an email now to the Principal.

      Yeah, I am sure I will get labelled a Troublemaker. Yeah, I am a big, bad, mean TROUBLEMAKER that actually gives a Shit about their child and what they do at home.

      I have rules and boundaries in place in our home for a REASON.

      HSV City Schools has crossed those.

      Retaliate against my child in ANY WAY over this issue.

      I dare you.

      Dusty (Still obviously EXTREMELY Pissed!….LOL)

  20. Dusty,
    You speak for many. Like I have mentioned in earlier posts, students of ALL ages are bypassing school filters and creating their own websites! I look forward to the day when Huntsville wakes up and we ditch this laptop technology (as other school districts in the country have done). Technology can be a good thing when used properly. It can however, lead to our downfall if we rely too much on it and become consumed. Just look at what cell phones have done to drivers. The laptop computer is a TOOL that teachers can use to enhance their teaching. Period.

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