21st Century School at a 19th Century Price

Every time I work with classroom teachers, I ask them the same question: Why aren’t you integrating more technology into your classroom? And, every time, I hear the same two answers:

  • No training.
  • No equipment.

It’s clear that if we want to bring schools into the 21st century, we need to eliminate those two obstacles.42-15650388

Adding training and hardware to a school has the power to transform it within a single school year, but many school administrators say they don’t have the money to make these changes. In fact, admins do have the budget; they just don’t realize it.

Most of my blog entries are focused on web 2.0 applications and other software, with suggestions for getting affordable hardware sprinkled throughout. But, below, I’ve focused entirely on ways to get your school past the hardware and training obstacles. I outline all the hardware and personnel needed to transition into a 21st century school. And, being that this is “Stretch Your Digital Dollar,” I describe low-cost and FREE options to get there. In fact, using the suggestions below, it’s possible to bring your school into the 21st century for a grand total of $55 per classroom.

Even if your school has a robust technology budget, bargain shopping can help you get a lot more for that money. And if you’re in a budget-strapped area, the suggestions below might be the only way you can get any technology into the hands of your students. As much as possible, I try to offer NO-cost solutions. And if you find that the low-cost options are out of your budget, I’ve included links to grant opportunities at the bottom of this post.

Before I start, though, I have to mention that there’s one non-negotiable technology every 21st century school needs to shell out the big bucks for — school-wide wireless access. This is absolutely essential in any 21st century school — the items discussed below will have limited use without it. Most schools already have wifi but if you don’t, you need to find the money to get it. (E-Rate dollars are specifically set aside to get all U.S. public and non-profit private schools online.) However, if you’re a teacher without the power to make wifi decisions, there’s one other possibility — if you have a wired internet connection in your classroom, you could purchase a wireless router for about $100, connect it to your wired connection, and allow your students to access wifi through it.

Now, let’s start modernizing your school.


The biggest mistake schools make when it comes to technology integration is putting all their money into equipment and leaving nothing for training. I’ve seen teachers use interactive whiteboards as bulletin boards and computers as AR-testing machines. For technology to be successful, schools need two things:

  1. teacher buy-in
  2. on-going coaching and support

Let’s be serious here. Most teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated as it is. In order for them to add 21st century skills to their already packed objectives lists, they need to believe it’s going to be worth it — for the students and for themselves. I tell teachers that technology should make them more efficient and more effective educators. In the long run, technology should make their jobs easier and make their students learn better. If the technology isn’t doing this, then it’s not the right technology.

So how do teachers find (and understand) the right technology? If you’re an administrator planning to pull your school into the 21st century, you’ll have to prioritize technology, dedicating time during regular staff meetings to tech training (at least an hour a month). This training should begin before the school year. In the summer, host a professional development session centered entirely around the pedagogy of educational technology. Help teachers answer the question, “Why should I do this?” You might want to hire an outside speaker to run this workshop or you might find someone in-house. Either way, your goal should be to at least get teachers thinking and talking about technology integration. (For resources — including videos, articles, hand-outs, and Prezis — that might help, check out the PD section of this blog.)

This also means that you need to have an educational technology specialist on site, available to coach teachers one-on-one throughout the school year. I know what you’re thinking — an ed tech specialist sounds expensive. Sure, ideally, you’d finance a brand-new position with duties encompassing regular staff-wide trainings, one-to-one coaching, lesson modeling, and equipment maintenance. But I know very few schools or districts that can afford this. Not to worry, though. There are other options.

Trainer: Low-Cost Option

What: Added duties for one teacher
Cost: about $1,000 per year per school

I entered the ed tech world as a 4th-grade teacher at a Title 1 elementary school. I was tapped as the school’s education technology specialist, a position I served while I continued my full-time teaching position. Basically, this was an added duty. For an extra $1,000 per year, I was in charge of offering regular tech integration trainings for our staff and maintaining all of our hardware (mobile labs, cameras, etc.). Because I was in the classroom, facing the same pressures as my colleagues, I had street cred. If I could successfully integrate technology into my classroom — with my workload, my student population, and all the pressures of being at a Title 1 public school — then every other teacher at my site could, too.

Importantly, my district sent me regularly to conferences and workshops so I could bring that knowledge back to my school. If you have the money, I highly recommend sending your school’s ed tech specialist to two to three conferences a year — conferences like ISTE or local/state workshops (i.e., Arizona K-12 Center workshops). But if this added cost simply won’t work, technology provides a solution. Dozens of ed tech workshops are offered for FREE online, through webinars or distance-learning software. This past year, I attended Educon for FREE remotely, and it sparked quite a few ideas.

Because this duty comes with a stipend, you can add a list of requirements to it. My position had fairly loose requirements and, while I tended to do a lot because I really enjoyed it, teachers in the same position at other schools did very little. I would recommend having your ed tech specialist offer a school-wide training session at least every month. This can be part of a regular staff meeting (with required attendance) or an optional course offered after school. I used to hold weekly optional after-school training sessions. As a carrot, teachers who attended received continuing education credits that they could use to meet a district requirement.

Trainer: No-Cost Option

What: Minor added duties for entire staff
Cost: FREE

If your school is totally strapped for cash (or if no one is able to take on the demands of an ed tech role), you can have your entire staff share the task of tech training. In some ways, this can be even better than having a designated specialist at your site. By encouraging all teachers to take up the post to a modest degree, you can build a school culture of tech integration and collaboration.

To get started, after an introductory PD on 21st century teaching, plan for monthly staff-wide tech share-a-thons. These can be set up in a couple of ways. You can just have any staff that’s interested share student projects during this time, as either a gallery walk or a staff-wide discussion. With this set-up, two or three teachers might emerge as tech leaders who share projects more regularly. For a more organized approach, you could have teachers sign up to lead a training session each month. You could have multiple staff members sign up for the same month, so each only has to prepare a 15-minute presentation. These trainings can be as simple as a “here’s what I did in my class, why I did it, how I did it, and what did/didn’t work.”

With various staff members presenting on technology, your staff will come to recognize the body of expertise they possess as a group. After a few months, one teacher may be seen as the cell phone expert, while another might become the Google guru. Teachers will begin going to one another for one-on-one help and coaching, which is an ideal environment for tech integration to blossom.

One Computer for Every Student

computerfaceThe hallmark of a 21st century school is 1:1 computing. When you put a computer into the hands of every child and make it available to them 24 hours a day, in every class and at home, it’s virtually impossible not to utilize the devices constantly. If you’re in a low-income area, 1:1 computing has an even deeper impact. When you send a computer home with a child (especially a child who has learned how to use it), you’re impacting more than that child. You’re impacting his parents, his siblings, his community. It truly is one of the most powerful moves any school can make.

Some schools and districts can purchase a laptop or iPad for every student. Others require students to pay for them, either by buying their own or through a yearly “technology fee.” But that’s not a viable option for a lot of schools. If your school is one of those, read on for some more affordable options.

One-to-One: Low-Cost Option

What: netbook for each student
Cost: about $300 per student
Hardware Life Span: 3-4 years

I was slow to jump on the netbook wagon, in large part because I believed that netbooks don’t have the power to run integral software, like video and audio editing tools. But then I heard about netbook integration at Saugus USD in California. The reason most netbooks are relatively limited is because they come with complex operating systems, like Windows. Basically, netbooks don’t have a ton of memory, and Windows takes a huge amount to run properly. But a Linux operating system, like Ubuntu, is streamlined. Ubuntu netbooks can do nearly everything a laptop can do, but at a fraction of the price. Better still, Ubuntu is a totally FREE operating system, as is all the software. So you can install things like PowerPoint, Excel, video editing, and podcasting software completely for FREE.

A year ago at the aquarium where I now work, I spearheaded the purchase of 80 Ubuntu netbooks, to be used in K-12 classrooms. With absolutely no knowledge of Ubuntu, I installed the operating system (as well as a few dozen standard programs) on all the netbooks, in about 5 minutes per computer. Teachers, aquarium staff, and K-12 students have been using the computers with very few problems. Ubuntu looks and acts a lot like a Windows or Mac machine would, so there’s virtually no learning curve. Students have used the netbooks to record and edit films (each computer has an embedded webcam in it); to access web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis; and to create complex graphs, among other things. The netbooks are extremely popular and get a lot of use. After one school year, they’re all still going strong.

For more information on setting up and going 1:1 with Ubuntu netbooks, take a look at this blog post.

One-to-One: Lower-Cost Option

What: rooted Nook Android tablet for each student
Cost: $250 per student
Hardware Life Span: about 3 years

More and more, I’m hearing about schools giving iPads to all of their students. I can see why — tablets can run some great education applications and can utilize web 2.0 tools, like Google docs, for word processing, presentations, and data analysis. They’re lightweight and relatively powerful, not to mention that, with e-reader capabilities, they can potentially replace textbooks. Personally, though, I’m not willing to plop down $500-$830 for a tool that will be dramatically improved in the coming years.

I am, however, willing to consider it for $250. That’s the current price of a Nook Color. The Nook is the Barnes & Noble e-reader and was designed as a direct competitor of the Kindle. Out of the box, it’s just that. It can hold thousands of books, which it downloads through a wifi internet connection. But with just a few minor tweaks, you can basically turn a Nook Color into an iPad.

The Nook, which has a touch screen, was built on an operating system very similar to Android. However, most of the operating system’s features were locked for users. In a few easy steps, though, you can install FREE software onto the Nook and unlock it, essentially turning it into the Android version of an iPad.

At least one school district is already unrolling these rooted Nooks into its special education classrooms. From what I’ve heard, it’s simple to pay for educational Android apps just once and then install them on an entire fleet of Nooks.

Click here for directions on rooting a Nook and ideas for using it in the classroom.

One-to-One: No-Cost Option

What: one cell phone (with NO phone service) for each student
Cost: FREE
Hardware Life Span: 3-6 years, depending on device model and age

The cell phone in your pocket right now is probably more powerful than the desktop computer you had 10 years ago. It’s a computer with internet capabilities, a GPS device, a clock, a camera, all rolled into a tiny mobile package.

Most teachers have no idea how powerful cell phones can be. Students can record and edit short films as well as podcasts on them. They can blog and wiki. They can write reports and create graphs, using web 2.0 tools like Google docs. They can respond instantly to poll questions, collaborate with others, and geo-tag photos and notes.

A lot of teachers are shocked when I suggest having students use tiny cell phones to write papers, blogs and wikis. But think about it — most kids are writing with cell phones more often than they write with anything else. One Japanese high schooler even penned an entire novel on her cell phone while riding the bus to and from school. A colleague who runs educational technology sessions for students across the country told me that she allows students to write using a netbook, a cell phone, or a paper notebook. She said about 90 percent choose to use the cell phone. Why? They’re most comfortable with it.

Despite the benefits, many schools and districts are wary of allowing students to use their personal cell phones in class. Administrators argue that text messaging is a distraction and a cheating landmine, not to mention that parents might get up in arms if students’ cell phone bills skyrocket due to an in-class project. So some schools have purchased cell phones to use in the classroom. This comes with quite a price. But it doesn’t have to.

At the aquarium, we use Nokia cell phones in most of our education programs. Teachers in various districts check out the phones to use in their classrooms. Several of these districts have policies banning cell phones from the classroom, and the aquarium wasn’t willing to take on cell phone bills for all of these devices. So we turned off the phone capabilities of our phones. By removing the SIM cards from the phones, they aren’t able to make calls or send text messages. There are also no bills. But the phones can still be used to record and edit video and audio. And, with wifi, the phones can still access the internet. A SIM-less phone is basically a mobile computer and nothing more.

Ok, so there are no monthly fees, but how are you going to get these mobile computers for FREE? Have you ever had a smart phone, like an iPhone or a Droid? How long did you have it before you got a new one? Most people get a new phone as soon as their provider allows them to, which is generally every 2 years. But a smart phone can work well past two years. So why not host a few cell phone drives at your school? Just like the can drives or newspaper drives schools have hosted for decades, a cell phone drive encourages community members to donate their old phones to your school to be recycled. Or, in this case, re-used. You can group the phones into class sets and assign them to students, all the time thinking of them not as phones but as mobile computers.

Check out this post for ideas on integrating these cell phones into classrooms.

Interactive Whiteboards

One of the biggest single educational technology purchases is the interactive whiteboard. Teachers who are trained to use them often rave that these boards completely change their classrooms. But at $5,000 – $10,000, most schools can’t afford to install one in every classroom. I’m pretty sure most schools can afford $55 per classroom, though.

Whiteboards: Low-Cost Option

What: Wiimote Whiteboard
Cost: $55 per classroom
Hardware Life Span: about 10 years

By far, the most popular post on my blog is one detailing how to build an interactive whiteboard for only $55. I’ve led a few 3-hour workshops on the topic, where the participants leave with a ready-made interactive whiteboard and some minimal training in how to best utilize it. How is this possible? It’s called a Wiimote.

You’ve probably heard of the Wii gaming system. Well, the Wii comes with a controller — called a “Wiimote.” It turns out that this Wiimote actually contains some pretty sophisticated infrared cameras. So, coupled with an infrared pen and the right software, teachers can create a system with the functionality of a Smartboard or Promethean ActivBoard. The Wiimote costs $40 (though you can often find it as low as $20 online), the infrared pen goes for $15, and all the software is FREE.

Check out my Wiimote whitboard post for all the directions and details on building one.

One caveat: in order for the Wiimote whiteboard to work, each classroom needs an LCD projector to project a computer screen onto the board. Most of the teachers I’ve worked with have access to a projector, but not everyone can be so lucky, especially since these generally retail for several hundred dollars. Not to worry — there’s a no-cost projector option available. You can actually build an LCD projector out of an old overhead (you know, the kind teachers use transparencies on) and a used LCD computer monitor — here are the directions. (It would be great to have students construct and maintain these. Perfect for a tinkering class, like the one described below.)

School-Wide Online Community

Once you have enough devices for every student to access the internet, you can truly start integrating technology school-wide. The first step? A virtual community.

No-Cost Option

What: Edmodo
Cost: FREE

Honestly, I’m afraid people are going to start thinking I work for Edmodo. I don’t, but the more I use this social networking website, the more I love it. And, as is always true with love, I can’t shut up about it.

Social networking is one of the most powerful tools of the 21st century. Generally, though, it’s been overlooked by educators, who think of social networks only in terms of sites like Facebook and MySpace. Social networks can be so much more, though. Done class-wide, school-wide, or district-wide, they can help students build a community, give kids a voice, prompt academic discussion, help students develop and share ideas, make teachers’ jobs tons easier, and extend the school day. I’ve watched a half dozen middle and high school teachers launch Edmodo in their classrooms this school year, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive, both from teachers and from students.

Hands down, if I could integrate only one technology into a school, I would choose Edmodo. It’s powerful, easy to use, and — best of all — FREE.

For details on social networking in education and, specifically,  on launching Edmodo in your classroom, click here.

Class Websites and Student E-mail

Most tech-focused schools have two things in common: student e-mail accounts and classroom (or even student) websites.

For a long time, setting up and managing safe, monitored student e-mail accounts was hugely expensive. And classroom websites — places where teachers can communicate with parents and students can show off their learning — required coding knowledge and web expertise. Not any more.

No-Cost Option

What: Google Education Apps
Cost: FREE plus added duties for one staff member

I firmly believe that Google will rule the world one day. And I’m fine with that — they’ll probably do a really great job.

Google offers dozens of excellent educational tools, totally for FREE. You might already be using a lot of them, like Google Earth or Sketch-Up, in your school. But what most educators don’t realize is that Google offers a FREE school-wide solution to e-mail and website hosting.

One of the nicest features of Google Apps is that you can actually use your school’s domain name, like jeffersonhigh.edu. That means your students’ e-mail addresses will be johndoe@jeffersonhigh.edu, and any school or classroom websites will contain the same url. With Google Apps, schools can decide which features students can use. As soon as kids are literate, you can give them access to e-mail, calendars, chat, documents, and more. Or you can give them access to only a few. Google has gone to great lengths to ensure Apps for Education is safe and complies with all federal laws. There is message security (through Postini) that blocks spam and give school administrators oversight of students’ messages.

In addition, Google allows users to create their own websites for FREE. The website creation tool is extremely user friendly, so every teacher at your school could maintain their own website fairly easily. (When I was teaching, I actually had 4th-grade students create and maintain classroom websites for teachers.)

Google Apps has a ton of features so, if you implement it in your school, you’re probably going to want a go-to staff member to take charge of it. Luckily, Google offers online courses where users can become Google Apps Certified Trainers — this basically means they have the knowledge to train teachers on Google apps. The courses are FREE, but to get the title, you have to take six tests that cost $15 each, for a total of $90.

You can find more information on the Google Apps for Education page.

Tech Help

Obviously, if you’re going to integrate all this new technology into your school, you’re bound to have some technical difficulties. Occasionally, a piece of hardware won’t work properly, and not every teacher will have the expertise to fix it. But a tech help desk isn’t likely to get any funding at most schools. Luckily, you don’t need any money to get one.

No-Cost Option

What: student-staffed help desk
Cost: added duty for one teacher

When I was the ed tech specialist at my school, teachers usually called me for help when things weren’t working. Of course, they often needed the hardware fixed at that exact moment. Sometimes I was able to run to their aid but I was also a full-time teacher so, generally, I was in the middle of a lesson myself and couldn’t help out.

Then, one day, when my own interactive whiteboard wasn’t working properly, one of my fourth graders walked to the front of the class and fixed it. I realized I had a pool of slave tech labor just waiting to be tapped. I assembled a team of 4th- and 5th-grade students who were responsible and had some tech savvy. I invited the kids to attend a few tech training sessions, alongside teachers. Of course, the kids picked everything up extremely quickly. I created a protocol for this “tech help desk.” If a teacher needed help during the school day, I’d send one of the students. They had 10 minutes to resolve the problem. If they couldn’t do it, they’d return to class and I would try after school. I put the kids on a rotation, so they were only getting pulled out of class once every few weeks. I also created a short report sheet, which the kids had to complete, detailing the problem, whether they resolved it and how they did so (many of the students were lower ELLs, so the form was good writing practice). They would turn these papers in to me on their way back to class after their 10-minute troubleshooting visit.

I’ve talked to quite a few teachers who have used students in similar ways. Some schools are able to dedicate an entire class time to these squads, but my method worked well for my school — the kids resolved nearly all of the problems, making the teachers and me a lot happier.

If you’re interested, take a look at this post on student help desks for more details.

Classes and Clubs

While technology integration into content areas is the key to creating a 21st century school, you still need some courses and/or clubs dedicated entirely to technology. I’m not talking about a general computer literacy class. I’m talking about classes that help students gain and practice a variety of 21st century skills. These are classes that will really get students, as well as the community at large, excited about what’s happening at your school. Ideally, these would all be classes offered during the school day. But, realistically, it might not be possible to fit them into busy school schedules. At the least, though, they can be offered to 3rd- through 12th-grade students as clubs.

Electives: Low-Cost Option

What: Gaming Lab and Class
Cost: about $3,200 per school, plus added duty for one teacher
Hardware Life Span: 5-10 years

Again and again, research has shown that video games help students learn more and learn better. Video games have been shown to increase students’ problem-solving skills, collaboration abilities, and even their vision. And educational games can teach students content-specific concepts in a way that helps kids better understand and recollect that knowledge. So why not open a video gaming lab at your school? Housing various game systems, as well as a multitude of educational games, the lab could be open to students before school, after school, and during breaks like recess. One California high school noted a decrease in behavior issues at these times, plus added community building and cross-clique socialization, after it opened a gaming lab.

But the learning shouldn’t stop at playing games. There’s tons of FREE and low-cost software available that allow students to build games. We all know that when you teach a concept, you truly understand it. The same is true for students who build games that teach players specific concepts. Even elementary students can build computer and XBox 360 games. Older kids can create iPhone and Android apps.

For more, check out this post on gaming in education.

Electives: Lower-Cost Option

What: Robotics Class or Club
Cost: added duty for one teacher, plus about $100 per student (but loads of grant options)
Hardware Life Span: 5-10 years

This weekend, I was a judge at an underwater robotics competition. I spoke to teams of students, from 5th to 12th grade, who spent months designing and building a robot to complete a series of tasks underwater. I couldn’t believe the variety of skills and knowledge these students acquired — time management, team work, problem-solving, trouble-shooting, not to mention a deep understanding of science concepts like circuitry and buoyancy. The students were from a variety of backgrounds and communities. Some came as part of a class or an after-school club. Others just decided to build the robot on their own.

The best part about the competition was that it was clear that nearly all of the work was done by students. Teachers acted as mentors, answering questions but — for the most part — simply giving the students a place and the time to work.

Depending on the scope and objectives of your robotics class/club, cost can run from a just a few dollars per student into the hundreds. The cost estimate here is for materials that would outfit teams of three with LEGO MINDSTORM kits, which are about $300 each. But most schools don’t foot the bill. There are tons of STEM grants available for robotics programs, especially in low-income areas.

Electives: No-Cost Option

What: Tinkering Class or Club
Cost: added duty for one teacher

A tinkering class is the quintessential 21st century course. It allows students to be creative, collaborative problem solvers. In fact, tinkering is basically why Google is such a great company — they allow their employees to use 20% of their work time on projects outside their job descriptions. Employees can work on whatever they’re passionate about — tinkering with gadgets, computer code, whatever. The 20 percent policy is how many of Google’s most popular applications (including gmail) were invented.

A tinkering class is fairly easy to set up. Host an electronics recycling drive — collect old monitors, laptops, hard drives, etc., and store them in a room. Add in some random supplies that you can find in trash heaps, like plywood and nails. Get some donated tools — whatever you can find will work. Then, invite students to play. In the course of the class, require them to identify a problem and build a solution. Teach them safety procedures. If you’re teaching older students, review basic engineering principles, like circuitry. Guide them in their design, materials choice, and collaboration. But let them take the lead. Let them decide what they want to invent and create a plan to invent it. Let them fail again and again. And then watch them problem-solve their way to success.

Once established, tinkering classes can provide a wonderful resource for schools, which can ask tinkering students to build Wiimote whiteboards, LCD projectors, and a host of other equipment for use in classrooms.

For more information on tinkering classes, take a look at my “Let Them Tinker” post.

Still Can’t Afford It?

Although everything discussed above is fairly low-cost, for some schools, it’s still not enough. With budgets being slashed, many educators might not have access to any tech money at all. If that’s the case, there is a lot of money available for technology integration in schools. Below are just a few websites to get you started. If you have any other ideas — for grants or for low-cost tech solutions — please leave a comment!

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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5 Responses

  1. Arup says:

    This is a great resource and list of stuff for schools and colleges in any part of the world as it deals with practical solutions with inputs for the general education related problems.

    Please keep writing and inspiring me.

  2. Katy,

    Great list of resources here! With funding playing such a huge part in the implementation of technology in education, access to information like this is so vital! (Pardon my overuse of exclamation points–the English teacher in me is now cringing.)

    I would like to add one other piece of well-priced technology equipment: the Ipevo Point 2 View camera. I recently purchased one with my own money, and I can’t say enough wonderful things about this product. Other document cameras, like the Smart document camera, the Ladybug, or the Elmo, are simply out of my price range. Recently, I heard about the Ipevo p2v from the tech coordinator at my ROE and I decided to do some research, and found out that this nifty little tool does most of the same work as other document cameras, but only costs about $70. I’m working on a screencast demo right now, and I’ll be posting it on my blog ASAP.

    Thanks again for your blog. It’s always a joy to read!

    • Katy Scott says:

      Thanks, Jessica.

      I looked for low-price document cameras when I was researching this blog, but I couldn’t find any. I got a $150 doc cam a few years ago, but prices have skyrocketed — thanks so much for the suggestion. $70 is a GREAT price! I’ll definitely pass that info along.

  3. What an informative post. A great resource for teachers trying to integrate the use of technology into their classroom is the Habitat for Humanity website. They offer e-learning, online courses, and more teaching students about housing issues around the world and it is free!! If you would like more information please go here:http://www.habitat.org/youthprograms/parent_teacher_leader/hfhlessons.aspx

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