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

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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.

Ed Tech

Read more about how schools are bringing technology into the classroom.

“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.

Comments & Trackbacks (22) | Post a Comment

Jack Jarvis

A classic scenario in Educational Technology…ready, FIRE, aim! I don’t see one problem there that could not have been addressed…instead a total surrender!

Main mistake was no plan, but things could have been remedied:

1. Leave the machines in the classrooms…..let students use their own devices at home….and don’t tell me they don’t have them. I work with a bunch of poverty at my school and every 6th grader has a phone.

2. Never give computers to students before you train your teachers .

3. The whole town had the password for the school network??? Change it!

4. Put what you have left in classrooms of teachers who have knowledge.

5. How about bringing in an outside consultant?

No wonder public education is under siege…….we do stupid things like this and don’t even try to fix them. Give me one week at any district that is having these problems and I could fix them. What cowards!!!

Dan

No wonder the public has lost faith in so-called public education. The waste is endemic, and it is the arrogance of administrators and school boards which fuel this attitude. Teachers go begging because administrators and school boards waste the public funds.

TonyP

There ya go. giving children tech for nothing costs the taxpayers and no recompense against the child nor the parents.
Nice decisions!
fools.

Karen Nemeth

iPads.

G. Hamilton

Yes, because iPads are so much less likely to be broken, stolen, hacked, or otherwise abused by Jr/Sr High School kids.

Hale Seitan

All this story really illustrates is that you should hire competent IT.

You can secure a laptop just fine, and it’s done all over the country for enterprise workplaces.

Net nanny? lmao.

Renthal

So Karen, you’re saying they should purchase ipads instead?

Both tablets and laptops can and will break when given to teenagers. There is not much different there, but ipads and their tablet brethren are for content consumption, not content creation. Most classes require both content consumption and creation which means laptops are without a doubt a better choice for school systems than tablet devices.

Max

Bring them to Best Buy. It shouldn’t cost a PENNY to recycle them.

Cubert

What do you do with a 1000 iPads? Put them into action using one single app that you download for free from the App Store – Apple Configurator. It’s brain-dead simple to setup. The real story here is going with Dell hardware, a Microsoft operating system, and Windows-based software. THOSE were the problems – not any human on the team. Poor decisions were made in the initial planning stages. Even a modicum of research would have lead the school district away from Dell as their hardware choice.

Jesse

In a world where technology literacy is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for success, I worry for students who lack access to meaningful educational experiences that leverage the technologies they will be expected to know in college and the workplace. Too often this tech divide is closely aligned with economics and race. I predict that the technology face of the achievement gap will have clear repercussions for the future notion of equal opportunity in the United States.

I also do not mean to argue that this is the fault of educators. Rolling out a one to one laptop program takes vision, technical know-how, and a tremendous amount of time and attention. In rich districts there are teams of techie-educators working full time to solve these problems. In less fortunate schools, the task of device rollout falls on the shoulders of an overworked and underpaid community worker, teacher, or administrator with many other competing responsibilities and every incentive not to take chances or innovate.

If we want to get serious about inequality in America, making sure that our public education system affords all students easy access to high quality technologically integrated education is a good place to start.

Chris

Hmmm…. Paying to get rid of them? Why, I’d be happy to take ten or twelve of them off their hands and not charge them anything!

paul moss

The most important element is missing: ensuring that the laptops are used to teach engaging lessons, and not just extensions of what students already perceive to be boring lessons. They should be used to create a constructivist learning environment. I can guarantee that this did not happen in this school.

Andrew

I used to work in education IT in NJ, running a school districts technology. There are several issues with what this school district did, but it is indicative of how many organizations work.

I have worked for school districts, both public and private that have successfully used technology in the classroom, in both planning and execution. All schools should not be lumped in together here.

Secondly, the school district and IT personnel should have contacted other schools to find out about how they were running a 1 to 1 program. They would have been told about ALL of the issues they found out: laptop breakage, battery replacements, teacher training. Its on those specific individuals for going in blindly.

Lastly, there are organizations in NJ that will GLADLY come and pick up those laptops for free. I used to work with a program that refurbished the computers and used them to train veterans. Good cause and FREE. Can’t go wrong there.

Katie

Why on earth are they destroying them? Why aren’t they selling them to make some money back!?

Stephen Price

@Jack_jarvis:

It sounds like you can solve all the problems! Congrats! That said, this seems more complex than administrator incompetence.

At the core, this seems like an experiment that was poorly scoped and driven by the you need a larger team of IT Staff to serve the needs of this group. That takes potential staff lines away from teaching.

License fees add up as well – more staff lines away from teaching.

Hardware replacement cycle means each student consumes ~$250 in depreciation per year, on top if breakage. I run a program at a university whose main limiting factor is that schools can’t afford to transport their students to our campus. Each class of 30 could take 10 field trips per year instead of a 1:1 program.

All in all, I don’t think its because the people currently calling the shots couldn’t solve the problems. The core problems are impossible to solve sustainably in “one week”. The choice ey have made is to stop filling the pockets of tech sector execs because the results don’t justify the costs.

Sandy

Past the silliness of this situation, one truth stands out: “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.”
In other words the IT guys WHO ARE NOT EDUCATORS did this without involving the school district’s department of instruction, and without professional development for faculty. Teachers are worried about teaching to the almighty tests. Why should they embrace 1:1 laptops when they’ve not been shown 1)why and 2) how. How much time can a teacher afford to learn a new software, create a new unit of study employing the software, and then teach the kids the software, have them use it; and finally assess its success? (I almost forgot, when does the teacher get to learn classroom management strategies so kids don’t go off and play Solitaire?) A laptop is no more than a pencil – tool – what does “effective use” look like? How do we know. Where’s the research?

Ellen Lane

For an example of how to implement a one-to-one laptop program successfully, check out the Putnam Valley Central School District in Putnam County, NY, which introduced laptops several years ago. The laptops were introduced at the middle school level and worked up from there through 12th grade. The middle school faculty received extensive training in how to effectively use laptops to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom. As more laptops were purchased, more teachers were trained. I have two high schoolers at Putnam Valley now and cannot imagine a school day in which they would not use their laptops. It is not a matter of buying computers and handing them over to the students, the teachers and larger school community must be prepared for the change and educated about it. In Putnam Valley, the laptops have been a great success.

MacDude

Every time a legislator or superintendent says “we’re buy X for every child…” I always ask “…and what do you want them to do with with them?” If you don’t know where you’re going…

They really need to start with a plan first of targeted student outcomes they expect from the use of the technology. They need to train teachers on how to assist students with achieving those outcomes. The technology is not the magic, the learning is. The technology is just a means to get there but as I repeat myself, you have to know where you are going first.

John Krouskoff

If you look closely, those are Netbooks. Netbooks held great promise but were short lived and underpowered. Tablets and ultimately Chromebooks are largely responsible for their demise, and students use these newer technologies as tools that very often transform their learning. The article is a cautionary tale that many district’s are aware of and plan carefully to avoid. Many of the districts I work with have carefully planned their professional development (ahead of the purchases), their curricula, and desired student outcomes long before ordering Chromebooks or tablets. As a result, the technologies are used purposefully and the technical obstacles are largely diminished.

David

Ok…seriously? Why is it that the State of Maine has a one to one program that has been in place since 2001? Why doesn’t everyone copy them? In 2001 every 7th and 8th grader in Maine was issued an iBook….then 4 years later…new iBooks were issued….then 3 years later (due to the introduction of intel processors and expansion into high school) Macbooks. This past year the program renewed again and schools were given the choice of Macbook Airs (incur some additional cost) or iPads. Again…no big issues. There is an in-state repair depot in place…warranty repairs are done quickly. Spare devices are on-site and based upon 1% of total deployment at your school. It’s an awesome set-up. Why does everyone keep trying to reinvent the wheel. Maine has done it and continues to be very successful with 1to1. The devices are owned by the state…not the schools. The devices follow the kids unless they go to another district with different devices, however procedures are in place to deal with all that. Seriously…it’s not rocket science….figure it out!

Dennis Schroeder

Thank you for the article. This says everything I’ve talked to schools about “one laptop/iPad per student”. It takes two or more years of implementation planning before hardware should be purchased.
For those commenters saying “hire competent IT” or buy this or this software. Some schools have competent IT but when 300+ machines and users are added to your workload it’s hard to keep up. Schools can hire new IT staff or pay overtime but does that come out of stimulus funding or out of already meager school budgets.

I need to check out Maine’s one-to-one program.

Emily

Verizon gives substantial grants to schools in this exact situation. The grants pay for staff development and offer webinars and support for the teachers involved. It’s called the VILS grant. Go to verizonfoundation.org.

Utilizing technology can be difficult, and a 1-to-1 model requires thoughtful implementation. It is worth effort. Technology can engage students and boost achievement. If I were a leader in this school, I would start with putting the iPads on a cart for use in the classroom and would make some available for students to check out. I think people may be surprised at the amount of technology students, even low-income students, have available to them in their home and neighborhood.

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