Problem-School Owned Devices

Most people will agree with you when you say, “Every student should have a laptop.” However, their initial thought is that if the students are in a school, the school should provide the devices necessary for learning.

The main reason for this thought process may be that:

  1. Parents have paid taxes and that money should provide all educational resources.
  2. Parents have paid tuition and that money should provide all educational resources.
  3. Students need to be monitored and regulated so the school must be the root
  4.  administrator of the equipment.

Public schools supported by taxes often only budget for the core curriculum, which only includes textbooks, classroom materials, etc. These schools have so many other expenses and various levels of regulatory compliance (this could all be another book) that they are given a technology budget. This budget is based on shared resources, which also explains why every student does not have their own basketball or paintbrush.

Many public schools apply for technology grants. These grants fund innovative programs, and let’s face it,  sometimes not so innovative programs. Regardless of how great the programs are, the grant money can dry up at anytime. This means in 2012 grade eight students could all get an iPad, but in 2013 grade eight students can only get discontinued warehouse items such as the Dell Streak.

This type of budgeting is not a path to creating opportunity; it is path to having a few hundred devices in a closet that no one wants. From year to year the allocation of resources is constantly shifting, and therefore, so are the opportunities.

The tuition argument is about the same. Many private schools request an initial annuity or deposit from students; this money is invested and finally refunded when the student leaves. Most schools have booster clubs that raise money for a particular group of students. Others will raise tuition on a schedule to cover new initiatives. However, they are still basing costs on shared resources.

Normally, 1-to-1 programs are connected to a brand such as Apple or Toshiba. This school brand relationship creates a nice and neat model. It also means that every year money is fixed to buy hardware. That hardware has to take precedent over all other resources. Being 1-to-1 means every student is promised access to the same device. This means digital content, software, classroom supplies, etc. are all taking a backseat to the device itself.

In fact, the number of teaching staff and the teaching load may be impacted if the school is required to have enough IT staff to do onsite repair. The institution will have suddenly gone from being an educational organization to being a computer store and repair center.

Owning a large number of laptops requires personnel, facilities, and storage that all take away resources from somewhere else. So yes, the school could choose a laptop for the students and fund the program with tuition, but the students might not get new science textbooks for five years instead of having them replaced in three.

Forget boosters and one-off initiatives; those are the same as grants. They are risky and opportunity is only created for those in the right place at the right time.

Some schools are so wealthy and they can buy what they want, when they want. They know their cash flow will be steady for years in the future. These schools can approach 1-to-1 or BYOD any way they wish. Nonetheless, the question still has to be asked: is buying a student’s primary educational tool really the best thing for them? Will they master it and maintain it as a core resource? Or will it be like a school owned textbook that gets sold or returned when they leave the school?

Most of the time students with school supplied laptops own their own laptop as well. It is common to see students with a new school laptop and their own laptop in the same bag being used for two different parts of their life, just like teachers who have a school-issued laptop that they never take home.

I collected data a few years ago on teachers at my school. Out of more than hundred people, only twenty percent used their school supplied laptops off campus more than two to three times a week. This year, even with new Apple laptops, I still see teachers locking their laptops up at school and not taking them home. People are people. No matter their age, people connect better to things they have chosen for themselves.

As someone who has managed hundreds of laptops from year to year since 2005, I can tell you that there are many other problems with school-owned devices. One of the main problems is the depreciation schedule connected to their value.

If the school directly purchases the device, then that device is considered an asset. Assets have a life cycle. Accountants want to see that life cycle completed.

Imagine [100 laptops per grade x seven grades = 700 laptops]. These laptops are 1-to-1. Every student eventually graduates from or transfers out of the school. So when this happens the asset has very few options:

  1. The school can sell the asset at an adjusted value to the student. They may or may not buy it.
  2. The school can reclaim the asset and reuse it.
  3. The school can give the asset away and buy a new one.

Trust me when I say that # 3 is not very likely. If a school does this they have already made sure the tuition was leveled-up to account for the cost of a replacement. This might sound ideal because the student never sees the cost. The tuition amount to cover a laptop that will be required for five years is going to include upkeep and repairs. So yes, the school gives the product to the student in the end, but the student paid for it and paid more than it was actually worth.

The second scenario is a very likely. Imagine laptops being used in one grade of a hundred students for their life cycle. If that life cycle is three years, that means three hundred students have shared those laptops. When the oldest group leaves, their laptops are transferred down to new students. Now imagine the starting 1-to-1 grade is grade seven. This means middle school students are expected to use a previously loved laptop for three to five years. The machine itself will become a liability. Opportunity is again lost or compromised. The other thing is, the students probably will not be too fond of an old laptop that is slow or malfunctions. They will reduce their contact time if the laptop becomes annoying to them.

Working up to the top then, #1 seems like a winner. At least some students will buy some devices, right? Wrong. We are assuming they have been using this piece of equipment for two to three years. They are going to leave school and go to university, get a job, study a trade, travel, or just stay at home and sleep.  If they are going to do anything productive,  they are more likely to get something new since they need a device that gets them through another four to five years.

Finally, the depreciation schedule for the school-owned equipment will be higher than buying the same used unit. So why would anyone buy it from the school unless they really felt like they owned it? If the school makes the purchase price too cheap, then it will not cover enough of the initial purchase required on a new unit, so this logic is not going to work.

School-owned equipment leads to additional cost to families, a required and inflexible investment in hardware, and the prescribed use of someone else’s technology. It works great until the technology ages and the users rollover.