One-to-One Laptop Schools/San Diego

Alway-on Learning: The one-to-one laptop initiative in San Diego




The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) serves over 130,000 students at 187 different sites. This makes SDUSD the eighth largest district in the United States. It is an urban district with close to 70% of its students receiving free or reduced school lunch. The student community is very diverse with large percentages of both Hispanic and Asian students.

For the last few years, SDUSD has been developing plans to give each of their students access to a computer on a regular basis, an arrangement that is known as one-to-one computing. This initiative is an effort to improve student engagement and motivation and also to foster higher level thinking skills. One-to-one initiatives also act to bridge the digital divide that separates lower income students from higher income students, as the latter often have computers and high speed Internet access at home which gives them an obvious advantage over their less wealthy classmates.

At one time, one-to-one laptop initiatives were big news in education circles. One-to-one programs were once considered controversial because of the high expense of purchasing the equipment. There was also controversy about whether a laptop for each student will necessarily result in improved learning. Today, the controversy continues about the power of one-to-one programs to revolutionize learning, but educators today barely raise an eyebrow when an announcement is made about a new one-to-one initiative because they are becoming so common. San Diego’s one-to-one initiative stands out for the sheer size of the project and also for the fact that the District plans on allowing the students to take the computers home with them after school for more effective completion of homework assignments. There are other aspects of this ambitious project which make it stand out which will be explained later in this study.

Always-on Learning


The San Diego School District’s one-to-one initiative is called the Always-on Learning Initiative and District IT personnel are proceeding at a slower pace than other LEAs that have already implemented programs in an effort to avoid the problems that emerge with initiatives like this. Like most school districts today, SDUSD must watch their expenses, and an aggressive initiative like this is quite costly. For that reason, IT personnel have chosen as an operating system, Novell’s SUSE Linux [1]. District personnel knew that Novell’s version of Linux works well with the District’s systems that are already in place. Linux makes sense for the district because it is open sourced and freely distributed. It is therefore much less expensive than Microsoft Windows or Apple’s OX operating systems which was another important consideration of IT personnel [2]. Expenses were also reduced by utilizing Firefox as a Web browser, and a freely distributed, robust suite of productivity tools called Open Office. The District is also making available some Web based Google tools and implementing a learning management system hosted by Moodle.

Phase one


The first phase of the Always-on Learning initiative was rolled out in March of 2007. According to a deployment journal kept by District IT personnel and made available online, five secondary teachers, two middle school teachers and one elementary school teacher were each selected to pilot the new program. Computer carts containing Lenovo R65 Thinkpad computers loaded with Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop also known as SLED were deployed to each of these teacher’s classrooms. Each cart had one wireless access point for the whole set of computers which proved to be a mistake. This was due to the fact that bandwidth is divided up between all computers that feed in to the access points and performance was seriously compromised as a result. The District now uses two of these access points per cart as their standard as more carts are brought on–line. This kind of issue is exactly why the District has chosen to move slower in their deployment. Correcting an oversight like this would have been a much more complicated and lengthy undertaking if it had to be done to several thousand computers. Another issue which became apparent during the phase one rollout is that students had trouble with the Thinkpad trackpoints which are used for navigation on the computers. Students also had trouble adjusting to the rather sensitive trackpad that the Thinkpads have. To address these issues, IT personnel merely removed the small red ball, and lessened the sensitivity in new deployments [3].

Phase two


Phase two of the program was initiated in February of 2008. Twenty more teachers were selected to each receive a cart containing twenty machines. The district used a newer Lenovo computer, the R61 which were priced at $697 each. Also, a district policy was enacted which states that schools who want to purchase these machines will need to sign up for professional development which is crucial for the success of any rollout like this. Surveys administered by SDUSD technology personnel indicated that slightly over half of teachers that completed the survey felt they were “somewhat prepared” to use technology (computers/internet) in the classroom and almost 60 percent of the respondents indicated a need for training on integrating technology into the curriculum but the Always-on Learning program was soon to make a dramatic change in direction [4].

A new direction


After Phase two was enacted, it became apparent that the current model the District was following would not be sustainable in the long run. According to Dan Wolfson, project manager of Always-on Learning, the SDUSD would be unable to meet the goals of their one-to-one initiative due to the prohibitively high cost of the Lenovo R61. For that reason, beginning in fall of 2009, the District will be deploying the Lenovo S10 E to three middle schools [2]. These machines are a different kind of computer known in the industry as netbooks. Machines like this are a newer development in the computer industry. They weigh 2 to 3 pounds, have a slightly smaller keyboard and a 9 or 10 inch screen. The machines are somewhat weaker then the multimedia computers that the school was initially planning to deploy through the original one-to-one plan. They do not have the power to run Windows Vista and Apple OS X is not made available for machines in this price range. The operating system most of them use is Windows XP home edition or a generally less familiar version of Linux [5]

Because netbooks lack the computing power of the other machines deployed in the previous phase of the program, they do not have similar capabilities, especially in the area of multimedia applications. Multimedia capability for all students at all times however is not crucial for the District. Few netbook computers have any serious multimedia capacity, but they are good with the basics that a student would need such as word processing and Web research and this is what makes netbook style computers ideal for San Diego. It is the District’s plan to utilize a mix of computers by having available in the classrooms up to four higher performance, multimedia computers and also carts filled with 25 to 30 multimedia machines which teachers can sign out to use for special projects at school. This blended model will satisfy the need for multimedia machines in the District’s classrooms.

While these machines lack some computing capacity, there are other aspects about them which make them particularly attractive for SDUSD and this is especially true in the area of cost. While no specific per machine price was available from the District, the Lenovo Website, lists similar computers which can be purchased from the manufacturer for a price of $399 [6]. This obviously compares quite favorably to the almost $700 per machine the District was paying for the Lenovo R61. This lower price point allows District IT personnel to meet the goal of deploying an inexpensive machine for each student in the San Diego District. The machines also have a longer life, lasting five to seven years, longer than more expensive multimedia machines. The hard drives of these machines can be easily wiped clean and reset for new students as older students graduate[2].

These new machines that the San Diego District is deploying will be running Windows but IT personnel still feel strongly about Linux. They are continuing to explore Linux and it may eventually replace Windows as the operating system on the District’s netbook computers. Open Office, Moodle and several Google tools will available on the new netbooks as they are accessed through the Web which is the same model pursued as part of the previous phase of SDUSD’s one-to-one program. Also some applications will be made available through thin client technology as well [2].

Wireless access at home


Most one-to-one programs provide a computer for each student to use in school. The SDUSD program goes farther because they allow the students to take the machines home with them when school is done. This is a crucial step because many students from less affluent households have no access to computers or the Internet when school is out leaving them at a disadvantage compared to other students from more affluent families. Poorer students are also unable to complete homework assignments in the same fashion as those who own a computer with Internet access. There were no details available about insurance for the machines, or carrying bags for the netbooks, but information was available about the wireless access that each student will enjoy. Through a strong relationship that the school has cultivated with Lenovo, the manufacturer has committed to adding to the computers a built-in 3G card for wireless so the machines will be about to pickup a wireless signal without a bulky and impractical wireless device that used to have to be attached to the outside of the machine. Through another strong relationship that was developed with another of the school’s suppliers came wireless access throughout the entire 211 square miles that make up the area which is served by the San Diego School District. AT&T, the supplier of this service has configured the wireless access to effectively utilize the school’s firewall and other Internet restrictions providing a save computing environment for the students to work in even if the computers are being used off campus which is truly a valuable aspect of this wireless service.



Servicing a large, urban region, the San Diego Unified School District faces many challenges when it comes to the establishment of an effective, safe and cost effective one-to-one computing initiative. This District however has an excellent chance of being successful for two distinct reasons: One is the thoroughness of the planning that was put into the initiative. Other LEA’s who have set up one-to-one programs seemed to have jumped directly into their initiatives with a less than necessary amount of planning put into crucial aspects of the program like sustainability. In some situations, one-to-one programs have been established, but then have run short of needed money to maintain and replace machines as they grow obsolete. The second reason SDUSD has an excellent chance of success is the strong partnerships they have developed with several of their suppliers especially Lenovo and AT&T. Partnerships like this are built in the business world all the time, but it seems that LEAs often miss out on the opportunities that come from building strong relationships with their suppliers.

The San Diego Unified School District is on its way to creating a truly unique and powerful learning system which after full deployment will include computers which the students can take home for the completion of school assignments. At home or at school, the computers will be able to access the wonders of the Internet through wireless access made safer because it is configured to use existing District firewall systems. This one-to-one program has the potential to change learning through the utilization of technology in the classroom and also to truly bridge the digital divide that currently exists between wealthier students and their poorer classmates.


  1. Devany, L. (June 21, 2007) San Diego rolls out laptops with Linux. E School News Retrieved June 25, 2009 from
  2. a b c d D.Wolfson (personal communication, June 24, 2009)
  3. SDUSD IT Department(2007) Phase I Pilot Deployment Journal . Retrieved June 20, 2009 from
  4. Cavallaro, M., Lugo, D., Rolon, A., Suranofsky, M. (2008) San Diego City Schools (SDCS) Technology Plan 2005-2010. Retrieved June 30, 2009 from
  5. Horowitz, M. (2008) What is a Netbook computer? . Retrieved June 24, 2009 from
  6. Lenovo (2009) Retrieved June 23, 2009 from