The Uberizing of K-12 Is Underway

Things for districts and schools to consider as 1-to-1 expands
Cathleen Norris & Elliot Soloway

1-to-1. Yaaaawn. 1-to-1 has been in the eyes of educators for a long time – and in media for an even longer time. What new can be said about 1-to-1? Plenty! It is a truism that technology is dramatically changing how entire industries operate. That “Uberizing” impact is coming to K-12 and 1-to-1 is the agent of change.

True 1-to-1 – where each and every student has an Internet-connected, computing device for their personal use all day, every day – and maybe even, 24/7 – is just now coming to be in K-12 classrooms in the U.S. Futuresource Consulting LTD claims that 50% of America’s school children are already at 1-to-1, and, if one extrapolates the curves that the Futuresource study offers, by 2020 – that’s 4 short years – 100% of the U.S. students will be at 1-to-1!

Up to now, a 3rd grader, or 7th grader or an 11th grader may have had access to a computing device once or twice or maybe even three times a week for 40 minutes each time. That sort of access enabled teachers, students and the curriculum to suggest that an application should be used, e.g., Inspiration (or for the shorter children, Kidspiration), a concept mapping application, or a simulation should be explored, or a website should be read.  With these sorts of uses, the computer played a supplementary role: the learning activity – activity not activities – was valuable, but nonetheless, if the lab had not been available or the computers on the cart weren’t charged up, the teacher had a Plan B. (And virtually every teacher who has used computers for instruction on a regular basis knows about better having a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D…. (smilely face goes here)).

Figure 1: Roadmap for 6th Grade Unit on Thermal Energy
For a seven minute video that dives into the details of this Roadmap go to YouTube


But with True 1-to-1, where a computing device is as accessible as pencil-and-paper has been, the computing device now becomes a primary tool for instruction, not a supplementary tool. If the computing devices for a class go away (for an extended period of time), the curriculum – as it was written for True 1-to-1 – becomes virtually impossible to enact. In True 1-to-1, the teacher is no longer the deliverer of instruction; rather, each student follows a “roadmap” (Figure 1), which some call a “playlist,” that contains the learning activities – activities not activity – in the unit.  

Importantly, while the students are engaged in self-directed learning those activities may be solo or they may be collaborative, e.g., a group of three students might create an animation that depicts energy radiance or conductance (Figure 1, the orange nodes). While no longer needing to deliver instruction, the teacher still has her/his traditional roles to perform: circulating in the classroom,  a teacher still provides scaffolding, nurturing, motivation, assessing, and disciplining, as well as orchestrating transitions between whole-class instruction and student-directed learning.

The enactment of the curriculum depicted in the Roadmap in Figure 1 is called “blended learning” – there is an online component and there is a human teacher component, i.e., the instruction is blended. 6th grade science students in Oxford, MI use the Roadmap (Figure 1) in a unit on thermal energy.  In the Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center, a suite of tools is offered – free and device-agnostic – that support a flavor of blended learning we call “collabrified, blended learning”.  As more classrooms adopt a True 1-to-1 infrastructure, educators will develop all sorts of blended learning practices.

Make no mistake: True 1-1 will be transformative; True 1-1 will change the nature of classroom instruction. A quantitative change – providing “more” access to computing devices has, in effect, introduced a qualitative change: with students having True 1:1-level access, the classroom is now student-centered, with computing devices taking over a major role teachers had owned – delivering instruction.

Indeed, “ownership” is key. When computers were down the hall in the lab or in the shared rolling cart, the teacher “owned” the computers: the teacher was responsible for making sure the computers were available at the right time, were charged, had the right software, etc. etc. (Picky, Picky, Picky: even if IT technically “owned” the computers, a teacher still needed to double-check with IT to make sure all was in readiness.) Given all those “ownership” responsibilities, then, it is not surprising that using computers has typically not been high on most teacher’s list of must dos. But in True-1-to-1, the students now “own” the computing device, and with that ownership will come care and oversight. It will, for example, be most interesting to track computer downtime in classrooms with True-1-to-1 as compared to traditional computer use.

WHOoops – we have been carried away with our own rhetoric! A more accurate statement would read: True 1-1 can be transformative; True 1-1 can change the nature of classroom instruction. Stanford University professor Larry “oversold and underused” Cuban, a long-time critic of educational technology, is right at least about this: schools are deeply conservative institutions and thus “will” is too strong a verb.  

But, the “Uberizing” – the transformation of education is at hand! The costs for going True 1-to-1 are increasingly dropping: hardware and network costs continue to fall, fall, fall. And, new digital curriculum to support True 1-to-1 is arriving. And, sound the trumpets, a recent, Ivory-tower, methodologically-rigorous study supports the effectiveness of 1-to-1 classrooms:

“The most common changes noted in the reviewed studies [of 1-to-1 classrooms] include significantly increased academic achievement in science, writing, math, and English; increased technology use for varied learning purposes; more student-centered, individualized, and project-based instruction; enhanced engagement and enthusiasm among students; and improved teacher–student and home–school relationships.”

The enabling conditions for transformative change are in place; it’s absolutely time to move from “can” to “will.” From his vantage point, after World War II, of being a nuclear scientist at Cambridge University by day and a fiction writer by night, C.P. Snow noted that scientists (that group now includes techies) tended to see the “glass as half-full” while gloomy humanists tended to see the “glass as half-empty”.

So, as optimistic techies, we – CN, ES, and for the sake of argument, you too dear reader – see that the Uberizing of education is underway and True 1-to-1 will be used for highly-effective, student-directed, blended learning, pedagogies. But, the journey from “can” to “will” is clearly not for the gloomy, faint-of-heart types.  Thus in closing, hoping to egg on the optimists – and the others – we draw on a more modern, but equally pithy, observation on human character: Just do it!

Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway work as team – bringing education and technology together – what a concept! Cathleen is Regents Professor & Departmental Chair, College of Information, Department of Learning Technologies, University of North Texas. Elliot is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Department of CSE, College of Engineering, University of Michigan. They can be reached at: or

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