Executive Skills & Strategy

Tablet-Computing Initiatives Suffer Major Setbacks

By Benjamin Herold — October 15, 2013 3 min read

Two large-scale efforts to put digital devices in the hands of students, including the largest deployment to date of the much-publicized Amplify tablets, have been halted because of a variety of problems.

In the 73,000-student Guilford County, N.C., school system, officials announced this month that they have suspended the use of tablets and related equipment provided by Amplify, an independent subsidiary of the global media conglomerate News Corp.

According to a news release issued by the district, “about 10 percent of the district’s 15,000 devices have been returned to Amplify due to broken screens,” and there were also reported problems with some device cases and overheating battery chargers.

In Texas, meanwhile, the 70,000-student Fort Bend school district scrapped a 19-month-old initiative to deliver an interactive science curriculum via iPads issued to students, dubbed iAchieve, after a consultant found that “the program fell short of its mission due to a combination of unrealistic goals, insufficient planning and project management, lack of consistency with existing FBISD curriculum-development standards, and poor contract-management practices.”

Leslie Wilson, the chief executive officer of the Mason, Mich.-based One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports districts in implementing 1-to-1 computing programs, said she was dismayed to hear of the setbacks.

“These were absolutely avoidable situations,” Ms. Wilson said, citing research on 12 years’ worth of 1-to-1 programs in more than 2,000 school sites nationwide. “As a school leader, you’ve got to do your due diligence and get a strong foundation in place before you spend a dime on a device.”

Safety Concerns

Guilford County Superintendent Maurice O. Green said in a statement that his district remains committed to its 1-to-1 initiative, financed with $30 million in federal Race to the Top district funds and $5 million in supplemental grants.

The district is the largest client to date for Amplify. In March of this year, the New York City-based company unveiled its new tablet, which features an open platform and controls and data tools for teachers. The device can be paired with preloaded curriculum and related resources.

Superintendent Green said he made the decision to temporarily suspend the program because of safety concerns associated with the broken screens and other hardware problems. Guilford County students were allowed to take their devices home.

In an email, Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Amplify, said the issues appeared to be anomalies.

“We want to work with Guilford to more closely understand” the unusually high breakage rates at some schools and other problems, wrote Mr. Hamilton. He added that roughly 20,000 Amplify devices are currently being used nationwide by seven school districts. Elsewhere, wrote Mr. Hamilton, the broken-screen rate for Amplify devices is roughly 2 percent.

(Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, the company’s curriculum division, is a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

In Texas, the Gibson Consulting Group, based in Austin, last month prepared for the Fort Bend district a scathing assessment of its 1-to-1 rollout.

Fort Bend Superintendent Charles Dupre ordered the review shortly after being hired in April. The iAchieve initiative—intended as a “software platform and a wireless network for the delivery of interactive science curricula,” according to the report—was launched by Mr. Dupre’s predecessor, Timothy Jenney, who retired after having the remainder of his contract bought out by the FBISD board in July 2012.

A total of 6,300 iPads had been distributed for in-school use to Fort Bend 2nd through 8th graders at a cost of $16 million.

District spokeswoman Nancy Porter said all the iPads are still in use in Fort Bend classrooms.

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Tablet-Computing Initiatives Suffer Major Setbacks

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