For Mike Huffman, the Indiana Department of Education's special assistant for technology, creating a plan to provide a computer for every student in the state's 385 high schools required a delicate balancing act.

"We've had to take into account affordability, flexibility, sustainability and scalability," he said. "Each of those elements has been critical to making this work."

This fall, Huffman helped launch the Indiana Affordable Computers for Every Secondary Student (ACCESS) initiative, a partnership involving Novell, Intel, Dell and others. The plan is designed to eventually put a desktop computer in front of every high school student in the state, and the use of open source software plays a key role in making the plan work.

Although Indiana is not the first state to devise such a plan, it could be among the first to conduct such extensive research into executing the initiative in a fiscally responsible and future-minded manner. Indiana is so focused on the future of its technology initiative that when some companies offered free technology, the state turned them down.

"We've rejected one-time deals, or free-the-first-year deals, because that doesn't help with sustainability," Huffman said. "We don't want to get three years into this project and realize that's as far as the fiscal plan will take us."

Availability Versus Use

Indiana had a respectable student/computer ratio before the launch of Indiana ACCESS -- approximately 3.2 students per computer -- placing it among the top 10 states in the country. But upon closer inspection, education officials realized that didn't necessarily mean students were using technology. After observing students, officials found they didn't use computers often, despite the fact that some were available in classrooms. Rather, they discovered that students primarily used the computers for special projects or after finishing in-class assignments.

"If you followed the individual students, the actual time a student was using a computer averaged about 35 minutes a week," said Huffman.

The issue was that teachers were not integrating technology into the curriculum, and for understandable reasons. Although classrooms had a few computers, the majority of the machines were in labs.

If a class had 30 students and only 10 computers, it was difficult for teachers to split 10 students off to use the computers without having to repeat a lecture to the other 20 kids in the class.

In some cases, the lack of technology in the classrooms meant students were doing double-duty, especially when it came to writing assignments. "We noticed kids were writing essays by hand in the classrooms and then going to the labs to type them," said Laura Taylor, director of Indiana's Office of Learning Resources. "The students couldn't use their lab time to compose, there just wasn't enough time. Yet our end-of-course tests are online. They will have to compose online for those, and they'll have to compose online in the real world. Not giving them the opportunity to practice that skill was doing them a disservice."

Crunching the Numbers

When Huffman and his cohorts realized what was happening, they set out to improve access to technology in classrooms. They looked at a variety of options, including laptop models like those Maine and Michigan implemented. But the laptop approach immediately raised financial red flags.

"The laptops cost between $1,000 and $1,500 a seat -- and that was just for the hardware," said Huffman. "We have 300,000 high school students in the state of Indiana. So we were looking at $450 million. And laptops are only good for three or four years. So we were looking at a minimum of $100 million a year -- and we hadn't even factored in software or training yet."

Huffman and his team researched several alternatives. They eventually decided to purchase desktop computers directly from Wal-Mart's Web site for $199 per machine. They then added

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer