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California District Makes Major Purchase of New Tablets Designed for Schools

By guest blogger Danielle Wilson

Districts across the country are making big purchases of iPads, tablets made by Amplify and other companies, and laptops as part of ambitious technology rollouts. The Manteca Unified School District, in California is moving ahead with a major tech plan of its own, committing to the purchase 3E convertible computer devices made by Panasonic for all 23,000 of its students as part of a 1-to-1 plan.

The 3E device, manufactured by Panasonic in collaboration with Intel and Microsoft, is specifically designed for use by schools for students of all ages and costs less than $500 a piece, according to The Record newspaper.

The article describes the 3E as a 10-inch touch screen tablet with a detachable keyboard. The device has a stylus for writing and its manufacturer says that students won't have to worry much about dead devices because the battery is supposed to last a full school day before it needs recharging.

Manteca Unified announced that it would launch the $30 million "Going Digital 2015" project late last year as an effort to provide equal access to technology for all students in the district.

The 3E tablets purchased by the Manteca, Calif., school district will come loaded with the complete Microsoft suite of software, along with Intel software and the ability to access online textbooks, science experiments and tests. Other features include an attachable magnifying lens that turns the camera into a microscope, a temperature probe for lab experiments, and reversible docking ability that allows students to collaborate. Teachers also have the ability to control what students are doing during classroom instruction by viewing or unlocking their devices.

Jason Messer, superintendent of the Manteca school system, was present at the recent International Society of Technology in Education Conference in Atlanta where the device was introduced to the public. (See Education Week's full coverage of the ISTE summit.)

"As educators, it is our imperative to support extended learning and expose students to the tools and environment that await them in the work world," said Messer in the article.

Messer said several school superintendents from states including Texas and Florida have contacted him to express their interest in the device.

In addition to the district's work implementing its 1-to-1 initiative, wireless access points will be installed in every classroom throughout the district and all teachers will be given a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet and a wireless screen projector for classroom use.

The district tested prototypes of the device with students from elementary to high school and received positive feedback. Messer told The Record he is optimistic about the large-scale deployment of the new devices. He said the 3E is the first "real machine" that he could see deploying "without compromising on software or ruggedness."

Manteca Unified's effort follows a number of bumpy rollouts of 1-to-1 projects in districts, including the highly publicized setbacks in the Los Angeles Unified school system, where students hacked through the security filters of their district-issued iPads to access Facebook, Twitter and other unapproved websites. 

Messer said that the devices were at a "price-point we (the school district) can manage" and described it as the "first real machine" they could see deploying without compromising on software or ruggedness. 

Damian Bebell, an assistant research professor at Boston College, has directed multiple studies around the country focused on the effects of 1-to-1 programs in school districts like Manteca Unified. In an interview with Education Week, Bebell said that the types of devices districts choose for big tech rollouts is often less important than how schools make use of them to meet their academic goals. 

"Someone has to make those first steps," Bebell said, "It's not out of line or unexpected that a school district would do something like this. The quality of hardware and software may be in question but the vendor may be giving them lots of support." 

He said that vendors of new products like this are concerned with providing a positive experience for the district administrators, teachers and students. This will provide the assistance needed if the product durability or functionality come into question.

Cost is always a major concern for any school district in making a major technology purchase, Bebell said. He's often approached by administrators looking for research to help them decide what is the best device to meet their budgets and student needs.

He pointed out that the Panasonic device appears to have many of the features that its competitors have, along with additional functionality as a netbook with more hard drive capability than traditional tablets. Bebell said the added hard-drive capability may make it more conducive to cloud usage, which has become more common in classroom instruction.

This purchase is not the first time a major school district has elected to deploy devices created specifically for the K-12 market as part of a 1-to-1 initiative. The Guilford County schools, in North Carolina, are using the Amplify tablet, an Android device. (See this Education Week story about the questions that emerged in the district as part of the rollout of 15,000 tablets in the district last school year.) 

 

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