Five years and $50 million later, what does Shawnee Mission have to show for 1:1 technology initiative?

Distribution of Apple MacBooks to high school students back in 2014. Five years after the program launched, many Shawnee Mission parents are asking questions about accountability.

At the Shawnee Mission Board of Education meeting May 29, East Antioch Elementary parent Gretchen Shanahan stood up to urge the elected officials behind the dais to hold off on approving a consent agenda item allocating $148,342.50 for “replenishing” damaged Apple laptops.

In the grand scheme of the district’s 1:1 technology program, the dollar figure was a drop in the bucket. But Shanahan said the district should hold off on further technology spending until Shawnee Mission had concluded a review of the impact of the devices in the classroom and beyond.

“The 1:1 digital learning initiative was implemented five years ago with the promise that the devices would improve student academic outcomes,” she said. “Yet district leadership has refused to verify any data related to the impact of these devices on student achievement, behavior, mental health or discipline.”

Her plea didn’t get any traction. The board kept the item on the consent agenda and approved it unanimously.

But it highlights the lingering questions many parents have about the 1:1 program: Five years and more than $50 million later, what, exactly, have patrons and students gotten out of the initiative?

‘Digitally Wise’ group looking for data, evidence on impact

Each elementary student in Shawnee Mission is assigned an iPad.

As a member of the “Digitally Wise” parent group that approached the board last fall raising concerns about the impact of the 1:1 initiative on Shawnee Mission students, Shanahan had been keeping a close eye on the district’s management of the program. She was one of two members of the group appointed to the 30-member task force tasked with reviewing the initiative.

But Shanahan and other member of the group have voiced skepticism about the motivations of the administrators leading the task force, saying they at times appeared more interested in protecting the reputation of those involved with its roll out than with casting a critical eye on some of the issues that have emerged — from access to inappropriate content to mounting screen time to distraction from focus on subject matter in the classroom.

The work of the task force was kept out of public view, with its meetings closed to non-members and to the press, so it’s impossible to say what, exactly has transpired behind closed doors. (The Shawnee Mission Post has filed a Kansas Open Meetings Act violation complaint with the state attorney general over the district’s moves to prevent access to the proceedings). The group held its last meeting June 17, and Christy Ziegler, the district’s assistant superintendent of personalized learning, is in the process of compiling the task force’s recommendations into a report to be presented to Superintendent Michael Fulton.

Shanahan and Erica Frans, the other Digitally Wise group member who sat on the committee, have expressed frustration in the administration’s reluctance or inability to provide data on how the devices have impacted the learning environment. They were also unhappy that evidence-based recommendations on issues like screen time weren’t prominently included in the task force’s considerations.

Ziegler and David Smith, the district’s chief communications officer, say they understand the desire to look at data on outcomes and discipline, but that it’s difficult to suss out exactly what impact the devices have had on achievement. Comparing test score data before and after the roll out of the devices would be fraught because so many other variables could be impacting the trends. Moreover, the district’s discipline incident recording system makes it difficult to determine whether the device was the primary factor that led to a discipline issue or whether it was just tangentially related.

“That’s a system level challenge to think through how you categorize things so that it’s clear what the issue is,” Smith said. “So if a teacher asked you to close your device, and a few minutes later you haven’t done it, is that a technology issue? Or is it primarily something else?”

This lack of hard data on what measurable impact the devices have had on the classroom – positive and negative — is at the center of the Digitally Wise group’s concerns.

“Parents and taxpayers have a right to know whether the more than $50 million investment to date has had any measurable impact on student outcomes,” Shanahan said at the May 29 board meeting.

Closing the access gap

Students at Briarwood Elementary used their iPads to present a report on water access in Africa.

In the wake of such criticisms, district officials are quick to point out that one of the primary motivations for the approval of the program back in 2014 was closing the access gap that existed among Shawnee Mission students.

Students from higher income households may have had access to several devices at home. Students from lower income households often did not. As the district’s demographic profile has shifted, those concerns became more pronounced.

In the modern world, Smith said, students who aren’t facile with technology are at a pronounced disadvantage as they look to enter college and the working world.

“If kids don’t have access to technology, they won’t be able to use it at same level,” Smith said. “We’ve given all of our kids access to technology, not just so they can use it as part of learning, but so they can learn technology itself.”

And from Ziegler’s perspective, the devices have opened up a range of possibilities for engaging students with subject matter that may have been less appealing before. With the devices, she said, teachers can set students off on a path of discovery and creation that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

“I believe that one of the benefits we see is increased focus on intentional professional development and project based learning,” she said. “It brings an authenticity to the students’ approach to learning.”

Spending level considerable compared to neighboring districts

Students at work on their iPads at ApacheIS.

Regardless of the impact on the learning environment, the program hasn’t been cheap. Smith reports that Shawnee Mission has invested $50.1 million on 1:1 technology devices since implementation in 2014.

That figure has raised some eyebrows: With constructions costs in the neighborhood of $15 million for a new elementary, the 1:1 initiative represents an investment equal to at least three new school buildings.

The figure is considerable when compared to what neighboring peer districts have invested in their programs.

In Olathe Public Schools, the technology program provides one iPad for every two students at the elementary level. The devices are shared within the classroom and not taken home. In middle school, each student gets an iPad and they can take them home. The high school program provides a Dell laptop to each student.

Olathe also took a measured approach to rolling out the initiative. It started with elementary schools in fall 2014, then added middle schools in fall 2015. The high school program started with a pilot at Olathe West for the 2017-18 school year and expanded to the rest of the high schools last year.

To date, Olathe has spent $11.875 million on devices for its technology initiative, according to the district’s spokesperson.

Blue Valley launched the first phase of its device roll out this past spring, providing Chromebooks to 6th and 7th graders; and MacBook Airs to high school students.

“In subsequent years, we will deploy devices to incoming 6th graders and 9th graders,” said Blue Valley Director of Communications Kaci Brutto. “This approach allows us to be more flexible as technology changes and, at the same time, have planned, manageable refresh costs.”

Blue Valley has thus far invested $7.4 million in its program.

But, as Smith points out, Shawnee Mission was facing considerable pressure regarding access to devices via computer labs at schools. It would have been spending money on technology one way or another — though perhaps not $50 million.

“If we didn’t do the 1:1 initiative, we would still have been buying computers. We would still have been building space for labs,” he said.