After Ed-Tech Meltdown, a District Rebounds
Thirteen months after pulling the plug on a $33 million student-computing effort gone awry, North Carolina's Guilford County school district has managed to get its signature technology initiative up and running.
But the costs of starting over for the 73,000-student district—including wasted time, damaged credibility, and considerable staff frustration—have been high.
And those burdens pale in comparison to the price paid by Amplify, the vendor that last school year supplied the district with thousands of digital tablets plagued with hardware problems. In order to keep its contract in Guilford County, the New York City-based company absorbed millions of dollars in losses, according to documents provided by the district.
"Believe me, none of us would ever ask for something like this to happen," said Nora K. Carr, the chief of staff for the Guilford County district.
After massive hardware problems led the 73,000-student school district to suspend its 1-to-1 tablet-computing initiative in December 2013, both the district and its vendor, Amplify, took steps to get the effort back on track.
WHAT THE DISTRICT DID
- Agreed to not seek repayment of $3.2 million paid to Amplify during the 2013-14 school year, despite the initiative being suspended after 15,000 digital tablets had to be withdrawn from schools.
- Strengthened its contract with Amplify to include greater detail on device specifications, delivery timelines, contingencies, and consequences.
- Created a pilot program to test Amplify's new devices before re-deployment.
- Moved from an all-at-once device deployment to staggered rollout in 2014-15.
WHAT AMPLIFY DID
- Replaced all of its original digital tablets and related equipment with a new device from a different manufacturer.
- Reimbursed Guilford County schools $856,750 for lost staff time, training, and related expenses incurred during the 2013-14 school year.
- Agreed to provide an additional year of service at no additional cost to the district. Guilford County officials estimated the value of the extension to be $3.9 million.
- Provide free, on-site IT support staff 90 days for each of the 28 Guilford schools receiving devices during the 2014-15 school year.
Challenges are to be expected when deploying thousands of digital devices inside schools, say experts on 1-to-1 student computing. And given the unusual problems that arose in Guilford County, the district was probably correct to press the reset button rather than forge ahead, said Leslie Wilson, the chief executive officer of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Mason, Mich., that helps districts implement student-computing initiatives.
Taking that dramatic action, though, was just a first step on a long road to redemption.
During negotiations that stretched over several months, Guilford County and Amplify made a series of difficult decisions regarding money, public-relations strategy, and program design. Ultimately, that process led to a commitment to share responsibility for getting the rollout right the second time around.
As a result, the Guilford district has mostly maintained the trust of key constituents. It has also avoided the type of ongoing meltdown still unfolding in Los Angeles, home to the other big 1-to-1 computing initiative to go off the rails during the 2013-14 school year.
"There were a couple of high-profile, large-scale deployments that year that experienced big challenges," said Justin Hamilton, Amplify's chief of staff. "One of them is back on track. A big part of that has been partnership and collaboration."
Major Hardware Problems
In December 2012, Guilford County won a $35 million dollar federal Race to the Top grant to develop and implement a new personalized-learning initiative, known as pace (short for Personalized Achievement, Curriculum, Environment.) The program's centerpiece was a plan to give 15,000 middle school students their own digital tablets.
In April 2013, Amplify was approved as the district's primary vendor on the project, beating out Apple and Pearson. (Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, is on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)
Four months later—without having piloted the new devices, and after only a condensed training period for school-based staff—the district began distributing tablets to 18 schools.
The aggressive rollout strategy flew in the face of the slow- and-steady approach that experts recommend.
"We had done some large-scale deployments before with other technologies," Ms. Carr said. "We were able to roll them out and ramp them up quickly, and it worked well. So perhaps we were overconfident in our ability to do it again."
The district expected hiccups related to software, training, and teachers' willingness to adopt the new devices, she said.
What it did not anticipate were massive hardware problems, including almost 1,600 broken screens, more than 2,000 broken device cases,and a handful of overheated battery chargers, one of which partially melted.
In October of that year, Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green suspended the program and recalled Amplify hardware from schools.
That December, Mr. Green sent a letter to district staff, elected officials, and community leaders announcing that schools would have to wait until 2014-15 to receive their new tablets.
Learning From Failure
Experts say a clear-eyed diagnosis of the problem is the first step toward fixing a 1-to-1 computing initiative that has gone off-track.
In Guilford County, that meant assigning responsibility for what went wrong.
The tablets provided to the district by Amplify were made by Asus, a major Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. Those devices did not include the type of protective glass that Amplify had promised. Asus also initially disputed the district's contention that its chargers were defective.
Mr. Green, the Guilford superintendent, insisted that Amplify replace all the tablets with a new device from a different manufacturer. Amplify officials say they independently reached the same conclusion and decided to switch out all of their tablets in use in the United States.
Guilford officials also wanted some kind of compensation for the lost 2013-14 school year, for which they had already paid Amplify $3.2 million.
The company agreed to reimburse the district for staff training time and related expenses, an amount that totaled $856,750, according to documents provided by the district.
To ensure that Guilford schools got four full years of service, as originally promised, Amplify also agreed to extend its contract by one year, at no additional cost. Guilford officials estimated the value of that extension at $3.9 million.
In response to Guilford's request for additional supports during a second attempt at deployment, Amplify agreed to provide technology staff for 90 days at each of the 28 schools receiving devices, at its own expense.
"I suppose [Amplify] decided that [the problems in Guilford] were a black eye for the company, and that if they didn't get it right, customers weren't going to buy from them anymore," said Ms. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute, which has received sponsorship funds from Amplify.
Guilford County remains Amplify's most prominent client, accounting for more than half of the 30,000 or so devices the company has in circulation in K-12 schools in the United States.
The fixes did not fall entirely on Amplify.
Jill R. Wilson, who helped negotiate both deals with Amplify as the general counsel for the Guilford County School Board, said the district improved its contract language the second time around, adding specifics on issues including device specifications, delivery schedules, contingencies, and consequences.
Earning Back Trust
District officials also piloted the new devices in schools before moving ahead with a comprehensive rollout, improved their training for principals and teachers, and adopted a slower, staggered deployment plan.
Roughly 18,000 new Amplify tablets, designed in partnership with Intel, have been distributed this school year. Breakage and defect rates are down dramatically compared with 2013-14.
But perhaps the most significant challenge throughout the ordeal, said Ms. Carr, the Guilford district's chief of staff, was earning back the trust of everyone from teachers to local business leaders to the U.S. Department of Education.
"We're a district that believes in telling people what's going on," she said. "That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly."
That approach helped replenish the reserves of trust and good will that had been depleted during the tablet fiasco, said H. Winston McGregor, the executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance, a local nonprofit.
"They were able to own the problem, fix it, and keep our sights as a community focused on the higher vision," Ms. McGregor said.
Other key players in Guilford County remain wary, however. The district's plans to expand the 1-to-1 computing effort to elementary and high schools remain on shaky ground.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to understand why this did not go the way we desired for it to go, and we've spent a lot of time trying to ensure that it now goes better," said Amos L. Quick III, the vice chairman of the Guilford County school board.
"We are in a period of wait-and-see," he said.
Vol. 34, Issue 19, Pages 1, 12Published in Print: January 28, 2015, as N.C. District Rebounds From Ed-Tech Meltdown