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Tennessee Education Department Pilots Subscription-Based Model for Student Devices

The move is part of the state's Comprehensive Personalized Learning Strategy, which uses open educational resources and affordable laptops to help all students prepare for the goals they set for themselves after high school.

Like many states, Tennessee is trying to determine how to address a common problem: Not every student who graduates from high school is prepared with the skills they need to reach their individual goals in life.

At the same time, state standards expect each student to learn at the same pace and learn the same things, even if their goals differ. And teachers don't have the capacity to personalize learning for each of the 30 students in their class.

In response to these problems, the Tennessee Education Department has developed a learning strategy that encourages districts to personalize learning for all students and provide the technology tools that make personalization possible, said Cliff Lloyd, CIO at the Tennessee Department of Education — and part of that strategy includes re-thinking the traditional model for providing devices to students.

"In Tennessee, for us, personalized learning is about equipping students with what they need at the end of grade 12 so they can be successful in whatever their goals are postsecondary," Lloyd said. Those goals might include serving in the U.S. military, studying law at Harvard or starting a career at Nissan.

This personalized strategy involves a number of pieces, including open educational resources (OER), digital content, predictive analytics, infrastructure, professional development and affordable devices. While the Education Department is not telling school districts to move in this direction, it is recommending that they do so — and put an additional $200 million in education funding toward technology purchases this year.

When it comes to computing devices, Tennessee has hit a plateau with about one device for every six students in the state, Lloyd said. Laptops are old, and small districts can't always get a good deal on them. Throughout the state, districts see about 50 combinations of devices, operating systems and Web browsers on their networks, Lloyd said. They can't afford the capital cost of buying hundreds and thousands of laptops at once, so they've instead relied on a patchwork of grants and government funding to buy them, with no plans for how they'll replace the devices in three years. 

"The problem with the funding model is that we are dependent on one-off events with no vision or plan or model for how renewal takes place a few years later," Lloyd said.

Sustainable funding is one of the biggest challenges for schools, districts and states to deal with, said Tracy Weeks, executive director for the State Education Technology Director’s Association. Many places still rely on one-time funding, including grants, but others are trying to take a more comprehensive approach to digital learning, including Utah, Georgia and Virginia. 

"Folks are starting to take a step back and look at the total picture, the total cost of ownership of digital content, digital learning," Weeks said, "and that means looking at the software, infrastructure and access."

In Tennessee, the state Education Department has been working on this sustainable funding problem by trying to reclassify laptops as operational expenses instead of capital expenses, and working with vendors to change the device purchasing model.

Lloyd has been talking with vendors since April about a way to make laptops more affordable for school districts so they can support personalized learning. His pitch went something like this: Instead of looking for one-time large purchases of devices, vendors could retain customers for life by adopting a subscription model much like many software vendors have done, lowering the cost of the laptops and spreading out device payments over time. 

Four major vendors said they were interested, and the department created a vendor purchasing agreement that any district in the state could use. This agreement basically says that approved vendors will provide devices for $5 a month per student over three years (a total of $180 each) to school districts that choose a company to purchase with through this agreement. At the end of three years, the vendor will take those devices back and give the districts new ones. Unlike a lease, the vendors would not recover the residual value of the devices — that is, what the device is worth after three years — from the districts. Instead, they knock that amount off the initial price. 

"The exciting thing about it is that we actually thought the biggest barrier would be vendors," Lloyd said. "They've embraced it. This concept of the value of a customer for life versus a one-off purchase — they get it. They've done their math, and they realized that this represents a good opportunity for a vendor to really win market share." 

Tennessee isn't releasing the names of the vendors just yet, and it's still working through a legal issue: In the state law, a grey area exists for schools that want to make multi-year agreements for technology purchases. The Education Department expects to hear from the state Comptroller's Office in a few weeks and would like to see some clarification of current law so districts will be safe to enter into these agreements. 

Ten school districts have already piloted purchases with these agreements, and they've been able to stretch the money they've been saving for technology further as a result. Instead of buying 2,000 devices, some districts have been able to buy 3,000 with the same amount of money, Lloyd said. 

By November, Lloyd expects to see the affordable laptop piece of this personalized learning initiative hit mainstream.