More details on Cobb County iBook deal

On Monday Apple announced an agreement to lease more than 17,000 iBook laptop computers to the Cobb County, Ga. school district. Heralded as the largest ever “one to one” computing initative, Apple’s deal could net as many as 63,000 iBooks if it’s successful. It’s part of Cobb County’s “Power to Learn” program.

The iBooks will be distributed to all teachers in Cobb County’s public schools, from pre-K through 12th grade, over the summer. Sometime after the 2005-2006 academic year begins, more than 8,000 Cobb County high school students at four “demonstration site” schools will also get the new systems. Authorities at each school will be able to decide if students can bring iBooks home with them.

The goal, said Cobb County School District PR director Jay Dillon, is to see students get enthusiastic about learning in new and exciting ways. “We’re hoping that this will help kids who have never been excited about learning before to get excited,” Dillon told MacCentral.

“We have a total of 14 high schools in Cobb County,” said Dillon. “So we’re going to pick four of them as demonstration sites.” Dillon said the decision on which schools will be picked will be made in the next few weeks.

“The systems will be rolled out a little bit at a time,” said Dillon. Dillon explained that a final decision hasn’t been made yet on when kids in Cobb County schools will start to get the machines, but school district authorities expect the rollout will occur late in the first semester or early in the second semester.

Learning from past experience

When generating their request for proposals (RFPs) from possible laptop computer vendors, Cobb County school officials researched the one-to-one computing efforts made in other parts of the country, including Henrico County, Va., the state of Maine and Schaumburg, Ill. Learning from some of those programs’ shortfalls was key when making their decisions, said Dillon. A case in point was Microsoft Office.

“Henrico County didn’t get Office applications with their iBooks,” Dillon said. Cobb County made sure to include that as part of their RFP, which Apple has agreed to — Microsoft Office will be installed on all the new iBooks. Also included will be iLife ‘05, a graphing calculator application and World Book Encyclopedia.

Ultimately, Cobb County received bids from four major laptop computer makers: Apple, Dell, IBM and HP. “They were all very serious proposals,” said Dillon. “All of them did a nice job of meeting those specifications we set in our RFP.”

While price was an important factor, said Dillon, it wasn’t the only reason why Cobb County turned to Apple.

“The support we’ll receive from Apple is a tremendous part of their proposal,” said Dillon. Apple will provide Cobb County with a project management team, and will maintain a local repair facility, with the goal of making sure that no student or teacher is without an iBook for more than a day.

With Apple primarily responsible for supporting the computers, the Cobb County school district’s own IT department won’t be burdened with having to take care of 17,000 new computers. What’s more, teachers will undergo training programs in July and August, following their return from summer break.

Dillon also explained that Cobb County is separately bidding out the installation and maintenance of the wireless networking infrastructure that will be needed to allow these thousands of iBooks to surf the Internet and communicate with other network resources. That element was not included as part of the laptop acquisition itself.

University of Georgia to review program

Some time after the “Power to Learn” program has been put in place, experts from the University of Georgia’s Learning & Performance Support Laboratory will measure its effectiveness. Pending the review of their research, Cobb County school officials will vote on whether to continue or expand the program to the 63,000 systems Apple hopes to see put in place.

The university’s analysis will include data on everything from the support and maintenance of the iBooks to the effectiveness of teacher training, how student discipline and involvement changes, and how the iBooks affect classroom instruction and changes in the students’ work.

Once that analysis is complete, its results will be presented to the Cobb County school board and to the county’s residents. “We’ll present the results to the community,” said Dillon, before deciding on the next step.

If the “Power to Learn” program is received well and a budget is available, Cobb County will make a decision on how to expand the program, and up to 63,000 iBooks could potentially make their way into the hands of Cobb County’s high school students. If it turns out the program is a failure, or the coffers are empty, the laptops at each of the pilot sites would be redistributed throughout the county, and any remaining funds in the budget allocated for these systems would be used to upgrade lap computers and buy portable wireless carts for Cobb County school classrooms.

Budgeted from special tax

The money used to pay for the iBooks comes from a tax revenue program in Georgia called Special Purpose Location Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST. The state of Georgia allows individual counties to levy an extra sales tax of up to two percent, and that money can be used to fund capital improvements in the county.

Already US$23.5 million of Cobb County’s SPLOST revenues have been earmarked for the four-year lease program with Apple, or about $5.9 million per year. That’s less than one-quarter of the amount that had been reported by local media, according to school officials. That total represents about four percent of the overall SPLOST program. Each iBook will cost the county about $350 per computer, per year.

This story, "More details on Cobb County iBook deal" was originally published by PCWorld.

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