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The Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst has provided estimates of what it would cost Utah to put a computer tablet in the hands of every public school student from kindergarten to 12th grade over the next four years, and the numbers argue for a more cautious timetable.

The estimates can only be described as ball park figures, and it's a big park, ranging from a low of about $184 million over those four years to a high of $451 million. There are vast differences in costs depending on what devices are purchased and what level of support and instruction are needed to get the most out of the devices:

Computer vs. browser • The cheapest devices are simple computers that do little more than access the Internet, like the Chromebook. These can do anything a student would need via cloud-based applications, including reading, writing, math and data analysis. But they only work if the user has Internet access, which would be an issue for a significant portion of the most vulnerable students. Then there would be the issue of students finding and sharing "hacks" to get them outside the schools' dedicated applications to the sometimes wicked world of the Internet. Computer tablets like the iPad or Surface, on the other hand, are full-fledged computers on which children can do school work without Internet access, but they're more expensive and still are vulnerable to inappropriate Internet access.

Internal vs. external support • This one could also be called the "golden contract." The state could elect to choose from a selection of hardware and software vendors to come up with their own combination that state and local school employees would administer and support. Or the state could award an all-inclusive contract to some giant provider — a contract we hope would be awarded with the utmost scrutiny and fairness — that would be hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Such contracts can put more risk on the vendor, but they also tend to come with entrenchment. After a few years, that vendor may be hard to get rid of.

Teacher training • The analysts couldn't nail down professional development costs any closer than somewhere between about $24 million to $92 million. That $68 million range includes the cost differences between paying teachers for an extra five days of training vs. hiring cheaper substitutes to teach their classes. Which is better in the long run?

Device loss • Gaining the full advantage requires submersion, meaning the kids get to take them home. Anyone who has dealt with textbooks in schools knows how different people interpret normal wear and tear. The analysts' figures account for that, but it's only a guess.

Utah educators should absolutely start this digital conversion with some smaller chunk of the school population. More groundwork must be done before a tablet in every backpack will make sense.