Sunday, April 23, 2017

A laptop in every backpack: do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Our district has been moving forward with a plan to provide every secondary student with a Chromebook laptop for use in the classroom and at home (and to provide more devices in elementary schools as well). At this week’s meeting, the board will be asked to approve a $2.4 million technology purchase and lease, much of which will go toward funding this 1:1 laptop initiative. That money represents the tip of the iceberg of what will become a continuing expense, since the laptops are expected to have a three-year lifespan.

I’m not yet persuaded that the benefits of this initiative outweigh the costs. Our administrators have conceded that there is no hard data to show that providing every student with a laptop will increase student achievement (however defined). One the one hand, I’m glad to see anyone recognizing that test scores don’t capture the full effect of any educational practices; I’d be more persuaded, though, if this stance weren’t so selectively deployed. During our discussion of it at a recent work session, the initiative sounded less like the result of a careful consideration of costs and benefits and more like we are simply following a trend among districts elsewhere.

(To hear the response to the question, “Can we expect a measurable increase [in test scores] from this?”, and to hear some of the arguments in favor of the initiative from board members and administrators, listen for a few minutes here. See also Karen W.’s post here.)

As is too often the case at our meetings, the board made little or no attempt to grapple with counterarguments or to consider opportunity costs. It is not hard to find arguments that the proliferation of screens in school (and at home) does not promote and may even undermine learning. See here, here, here, and here, for just a few quick examples. I’m not endorsing those conclusions, but the board is not doing its job if it considers only arguments in favor and not arguments against. (See this post.)

There are also unresolved questions about the effect of the 1:1 initiative on the privacy of student data and on the district’s selection of textbooks. Will the district shift toward e-books and online-only materials instead of textbooks? If so, how will that affect curriculum and instruction?

There is also the fact that the money to fund the 1:1 initiative comes from SAVE, which is also a source of money for our facilities plan. If the pending bond proposal does not pass, we may wish that we had not spent those SAVE funds on student laptops, especially since the dollar figure here is actually larger than some of the smaller projects in the facilities plan.

There is, of course, enormous money to be made by selling technology to school districts, which ought to make the board give particular scrutiny to a large, ongoing expense like this one. Read about Los Angeles’ disastrous 1:1 iPad experience here.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Am I being too skeptical? Is it futile even to consider holding back the tide on school-provided devices?


Anonymous said...

Don't spend the last of the SAVE money on Chromebooks until the district knows if the bond passes.

Does this district never prioritize money?

Anonymous said...

I do not agree with having laptops in elementary schools. Beyond the issues you have pointed to, Chris, I have the following reasons:

1) The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to urge parents to limit screen time to no more than 2 hours per day. It is already difficult for me to know how much time my children have been playing (not learning) on screens at school so that I can follow these guidelines, and will be more difficult for me if they bring home laptops because I may not be able to constantly monitor their use.

2) If my child loses or damages a laptop, how much money am I going to be on the hook for?

3) Other districts have used equipment sent home to spy on students. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbins_v._Lower_Merion_School_District for a discussion of one law suit brought after such an incident.) In light of that, I am very leery of allowing school-issued equipment into my home, and certainly will not allow it in my children's bedrooms. Conversely, I do not want my taxes going to defend an unnecessary law suit if someone in the district decides to take photos of children.

4) If we are talking about sending laptops home with children, that is a lot of extra weight in elementary school students' backpacks. This could be bad for their backs in the short or long run.

I have fewer concerns about laptops for middle- and high-school children (though the FBI urging schools to act as thought police is among them, see https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/fbi-wants-schools-spy-their-students-thoughts), but I strongly believe we should restrict computing to non-portable devices at the elementary level.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbins_v._Lower_Merion_School_District. It is one of the creepiest things I have ever read and school officials should have ended up in jail for secretly spying on children and taking videos of them.

I don't see the point of 1:1 computing, especially with plan for use.

Chris said...

Anonymous (3:38 pm) -- The 1:1 Chromebook plan is for secondary students. There are plans to provide more devices to elementary schools, but not a 1:1 plan under which devices would go home with the students at night.

Our administration is not currently planning to hold parents liable for broken or lost Chromebooks; there is some discussion of that issue at the link. It sounds like the district will bear the cost of lost or broken Chromebooks and will replace them at no cost to the student's family, though if the circumstances warrant it, there may be restrictions on the use of the replacement.

Thanks for the link -- here is a clickable version.

Anonymous said...

ICCSD can't buy a piece of playground equipment for a child in a wheel chair and others to play on at Shimek but can buy Chromebooks? Bad!

Karen W said...

What are the benefits? Teachers already have tech in their classrooms. What do they need to be able to do that they can't do already that justifies this expense?

Few classes actually require 1:1 devices on a daily basis (computer programming, keyboarding, journalism) and we surely don't need to buy every student a Chromebook in order to put Chromebooks and wifi hotspots into the hands of the students who don't already have internet access at home.

Having spent so much money on the Chromebooks, teachers and the curriculum director will no doubt be expected to find ways to make frequent use of them even though we know that tech doesn't improve student achievement. Improving student achievement, not needing to demonstrably make use of 1:1 devices, should be driving curricular and instructional decision-making.

Anonymous said...

Karen W is right, but she leaves out something important. How long before the Chromebooks or their software become obsolete? Three years at most? Then we buy all new ones? The cost for this program is far more than the initial purchase. It's an annuity for Chromebook.

Tony said...

I think that ICCSD and their IT dept should be in marketing and sales. So what exactly are the benefits of a student having their own personal Chromebook vs sharing a Chromebook in a computer lab (and is it worth $2.4M initial plus whatever additional annual expenses)? Realistically what are they planning to use these Chromebooks for? For example, will they replace the text books - if so I assume they will still need to buy digital versions of text books, writing papers, internet research, test taking, what else? Is there really a need to have your own personal Chromebook that you take home to use - these are cloud based so what about those who don't have internet at home? I understand the savings of going with the Chromebooks over Windows and Apple options and standardizing on hardware across schools - that for sure needs to be done and we should have already done this. I don't think we need 1:1 though, just equip our computer labs with Chromebooks and save some money. I have family and friends that work in the ICCSD schools and kids that go to school in the district and from what I have heard the IT dept has a difficult time maintaining what they currently have. I would imagine adding an additional 4500 Chromebooks will require additional staffing to maintain these and teachers will require additional training. In my personal experience I help with an after school club at an elementary school and we have access to about 15 of the laptops that are maintained by IT at the school. We would spend the first 20-30 minutes of our practices just trying to get a few that worked and supposedly IT was always in the process of fixing them. Eventually we just started bringing our own laptops that worked in the interest of time. From what I have heard from my kids it is similar in class when they need to use laptops - they spend a lot of time just getting them to work and logged on to their accounts. Not a great use of school time in my opinion, and I wouldn't expect teachers to be the 'IT Dept' trying to fix these all of the time.

Tony said...

Also - I see they have a proposed 4 year lease for $1.5M of this initiative and the technology has a three year life span according to the information they provided.

Anonymous said...

this is the biggest waste of $$.... where's the data on how many kids do NOT have any access? And why the overkill? Fix the problem of access but this doesn't mean the 90% or more of students who already have computers need a new one. Be good stewards of our limited dollars!!!

Anonymous said...

4 year lease for 3 year life span? How does this make sense? What's better for educational outcomes--chromebooks or air conditioning?

Great points Tony! What will the district do with the Chromebooks? Put textbooks online? Makes students take standardized tests online? How big are these screens? Some kids have a hard time reading online? How will this purchase positively impact all of the students incl. special education students?

Will students have to collaborate more? Will teachers require less thought based work and more selection of a,b, c, or d?

Did we do this just because other districts were buying computers? Cause I don't buy stuff for my kids just because other kids they know have it.

What is the district going to do with the empty computer labs and what schools have more available rooms? How many seats can we add to capacity?

arial said...

I'm going to go against the majority and say 1:1 for secondary students is definitely something we need. Our 7th grader uses our computer at home for assignments at least 3 times a week. There are secondary kids in this district who don't have access to a computer at home and I imagine finding one to use at a library or at school is difficult for them, more difficult than it should be, and more difficult than it is for a majority of their peers. I don't think 1:1 is necessary (or even remotely a good thing) at the elementary level, and I hope that they don't plan on sending computers home with elementary kids because if they do, those computers will get lost and destroyed on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

This is awesome news! I can't wait to get my new Chromebook and free internet at my house. I just hope that the internet is fast enough to stream my Netflix and Youtube videos. And if I break or lose it I hear you will get me a new one for free. I just wish my boy didn't have to take this to school during the day. Thanks taxpayers, I really do appreciate it.

Chris said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I ended up voting against it (it passed anyway), largely because I would have wanted to see the associated privacy policy first, not later, and because I thought it made more sense to wait five months to see if the bond passes before spending that amount of SAVE money. I'm persuadable that it could be worth doing, but it doesn't strike me as an emergency.