Blended Learning

Why a New Jersey school district decided giving laptops to students is a terrible idea

Inside Hoboken’s combined junior-senior high school is a storage closet. Behind the locked door, mothballed laptop computers are strewn among brown cardboard boxes. Others are stacked one atop another amid other computer detritus. Dozens more are stored on mobile computer carts, many of them on their last legs.

That’s all that remains from a failed experiment to assign every student a laptop in this northern New Jersey suburb of New York City. It began five years ago with an unexpected windfall of stimulus money from Washington, D.C., and good intentions to help the districts’ students, the majority of whom are under or near the poverty line, keep up with their wealthier peers. But Hoboken faced problem after problem and is abandoning the laptops entirely this summer.

“We had the money to buy them, but maybe not the best implementation,” said Mark Toback, the current superintendent of Hoboken School District. “It became unsustainable.”

Mothballed laptops locked inside a storage closet at Hoboken Junior Senior High School. School staff will inventory them and hire a recycling company to discard them. (Photo: Jill Barshay)

Mothballed laptops locked inside a storage closet at Hoboken Junior Senior High School. School staff will inventory them and hire a recycling company to discard them. (Photo: Jill Barshay)

None of the school administrators who initiated Hoboken’s one-to-one laptop program still work there, but Toback agreed to share Hoboken’s experiences so that other schools can learn from it.

Despite tight budgets, superintendents and principals around the country are cobbling together whatever dollars they can to buy more computers for their classrooms. This year alone, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on education technology, a $240-million increase from 2013, according to the Center for Digital Education. Educational technology holds the promise of individualizing instruction, and some school systems, like Mooresville, North Carolina, and Cullman, Alabama, have shown impressive student learning gains. But districts like Los Angeles and Fort Bend, Texas, who jumped on the tech trend without careful planning, have had problems with their programs to distribute a laptop or a tablet to every student, and are scrapping them, too.

By the time Jerry Crocamo, a computer network engineer, arrived in Hoboken’s school system in 2011, every seventh, eighth and ninth grader had a laptop. Each year a new crop of seventh graders were outfitted. Crocamo’s small tech staff was quickly overwhelmed with repairs.

We had “half a dozen kids in a day, on a regular basis, bringing laptops down, going ‘my books fell on top of it, somebody sat on it, I dropped it,’ ” said Crocamo.

Screens cracked. Batteries died. Keys popped off. Viruses attacked. Crocamo found that teenagers with laptops are still… teenagers.

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“We bought laptops that had reinforced hard-shell cases so that we could try to offset some of the damage these kids were going to do,” said Crocamo. “I was pretty impressed with some of the damage they did anyway. Some of the laptops would come back to us completely destroyed.”

Crocamo’s time was also eaten up with theft. Despite the anti-theft tracking software he installed, some laptops were never found. Crocamo had to file police reports and even testify in court.

Hoboken school officials were also worried they couldn’t control which websites students would visit. Crocamo installed software called Net Nanny to block pornography, gaming sites and Facebook. He disabled the built-in web cameras. He even installed software to block students from undoing these controls. But Crocamo says students found forums on the Internet that showed them how to access everything.

“There is no more determined hacker, so to speak, than a 12-year-old who has a computer,” said Crocamo.

All this security software also bogged down the computers. Teachers complained it took 20 minutes for them to boot up, only to crash afterwards. Often, there was too little memory left on the small netbooks to run the educational software.

Hoboken math coach Howard McKenzie says he also had problems with the software itself.

“We wanted to run a program for graphing calculators, but it didn’t work very well; it was very sticky,” said McKenzie “We kind of scrapped it.”

Ultimately, the math teacher just showed it to the class on a Smart Board, an interactive whiteboard.

Superintendent Toback admits that teachers weren’t given enough training on how to use the computers for instruction. Teachers complained that their teenage students were too distracted by their computer screens to pay attention to the lesson in the classroom.

Michael Ranieri, a junior at Hoboken’s high school, aspires to be an electrical engineer. He said when he did use the computers for schoolwork, it was mostly for word processing and Internet browsing. He would write an essay on the laptop for English class, for example, or research information using Google.

“We didn’t really do much on the computer,” said Ranieri. “So we kind of just did games to mess around when we had free time. I remember really big was Crazy Taxis that we used play. If we found solitaire on line, we used to play it.”

Ranieri said he was relieved to be free of the stress of keeping track of his laptop. Families had to sign papers agreeing to be financially responsible if the computers were lost. Every week Ranieri roamed his classrooms looking for his.

“It was usually under my desk in English class,” he said.

Superintendent Toback inherited the laptop program when he arrived in 2011. At first, he tried to keep it going.

But he faced skyrocketing costs, which hadn’t been budgeted for. The $500 laptops lasted only two years and then needed to be replaced. Toback said new laptops with more capacity for running educational software would cost $1,000 each. Licenses for the security software alone were running more than $100,000 and needed to be renewed every two years.

And the final kicker: the whole town was jamming the high school’s wireless network.

“A lot of people knew the username and password,” Toback said. “So a lot of people were able to walk by the building and they would get wireless access. Over a period of years, you had thousands of people. It bogged it down, it made it unusable.”

Allison Powell says Hoboken’s headaches are not unusual. Powell is a vice president for state and district services at iNacol, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, where she works with school leaders on how to use computers to personalize instruction by delivering different lessons to each child.

But Powell says many schools are continuing to make Hoboken’s mistake of shopping for technology without a plan to make teaching in the classroom more effective.

“Probably in the last few months I’ve had quite a few principals and superintendents call and say, ‘I bought these 500 iPads or 1000 laptops because the district next to us just bought them,’ and they’re like, now what do we do?” Powell said.

Back in Hoboken, the school staff will spend the summer going through the laptops one by one, writing down the serial numbers and drafting a resolution for the school board to approve their destruction.

Then they’ll seek bids from recycling companies to figure out how much it will cost Hoboken to throw them away.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay, a contributing editor, writes a weekly column, Education By The Numbers, about education data and research. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive