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Don’t Buy ‘Stupid Stuff:' Essential Advice for Technology Purchasing

By Mark Lieberman — July 20, 2021 8 min read
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Many school districts spent the early days of the pandemic in a frenzied effort to purchase enough laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots for every student to use at home. Now that the dust is settling, a new question is emerging for district leaders: What are we going to do when we run out of money to pay for maintaining and replacing these devices?

Districts that have seen their supply of technology swell in the last year and a half are beginning to confront the often-overlooked realities of investing in digital tools. Devices naturally wear out and become outdated over time. Some might get lost, damaged, or broken while they’re in the hands of students. Others served a purpose during extended building shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but may be less useful when in-person learning returns in full force.

Budgets and finance are likely to evolve considerably in the coming years as well. School districts are currently developing and executing plans to spend varying amounts of stimulus aid delivered by the federal government in three rounds since March 2020. Many are using those funds to cover technology expenses—even as they worry about the possibility that it will be hard to maintain that spending when those dollars run out in 2024.

Diane Doersch, director of technology for the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program at Digital Promise, said her nonprofit advocacy organization and others like it are working to help districts avoid that “funding cliff” phenomenon, which proved disastrous for many districts as they spent federal stimulus funds from the Great Recession of 2008.

“We just don’t want them to make poor decisions or buy stupid stuff,” she said.

The good news is that some districts were already in the process of getting a handle on long-term technology financing before the pandemic. Now they have to double down and get more intentional.

The Evanston Township High School district, which consists of a single 3,700-student high school outside Chicago, began rolling out digital devices to students in 2014, and has had a 1-to-1 device program since 2018.

David Chan, the district’s director of instructional technology, now plans to implement a “refresh cycle” for all of its devices, including the ones teachers use.

Each laptop will need to be replaced every four or five years, and the district needs to stagger those replacements so that annual costs don’t periodically balloon.

In the past, Chan’s team informally tried to stagger technology replacements, but didn’t commit to an intentional strategy. “Going forward, we will be spread out so we are not buying 300 teachers a laptop every four years,” he said.

Other districts have started anticipating the major costs that will arrive in two to three years when the devices they bought last year reach the end of their lifespan. Administrators at the Baldwin schools in New York are establishing a reserve fund, like a savings account, that the district can tap into when technology costs swell past the typical budgeted amount.

“Most people can’t just go into their bank account and pay for a car,” said Shari Camhi, the district’s superintendent. “If you want to pay for it, you save up a little bit at a time.”

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That approach also accounts for the possibility of further disruptions to the status quo.

In the wake of the pandemic, schools are trying to get more nimble when it comes to learning models and instructional approaches. But technology evolves fast, best practices can quickly become outdated, and the threat of another unexpected game-changer like COVID-19 can’t be ignored.

Long-term planning is more important than ever, said James Robinson, assistant superintendent for business and administrative services for the Baldwin district. “There’s only one thing predictable about the future and that is that it will be unpredictable,” he said.

Here are four key questions district leaders should be asking as they think about planning financially for the future of technology.

How long will devices last?

The average lifespan of a laptop or tablet tends to be between three and six years. Each brand and model might have a slightly different outlook, which means districts that have a mix of devices from different companies need to be extra diligent about tracking the age of their devices.

Experts also recommend thinking about possible extenuating costs of devices as part of the overall investment before it happens—the kind of long-term planning that was easy to skip when schools needed devices urgently during the pandemic.

Some students might return laptops or tablets but forget to include the power cord. Cameras that teachers use for livestreaming instruction often come with remote controls that can easily get lost. Some technology tools run on batteries, which eventually must be replaced.

Doersch recommends districts get very granular with asset management. In her previous role as a technology chief for a district in Wisconsin, “we included the brand and the year it was purchased, and also what funds purchased it.” That helped the district stay ahead of funding sources that were set to run out, and gave the district a detailed database to examine which point of their life cycles devices had reached.

There’s only one thing predictable about the future and that is that it will be unpredictable.

Some districts may decide to stick with all the devices they bought during the pandemic, or even buy new ones if remote learning continues to persist.

Matthew Lentz, chief financial officer and board secretary for the Upper Moreland district in Pennsylvania, said only 2 percent or 3 percent of families there want to continue with remote learning next year. He wants to get the most bang for his buck with the huge supply of devices currently at the district’s disposal—in part by encouraging students to think of the devices as essential learning tools.

“We’re saying to teachers, ‘The Chromebook is a textbook. It should be going home every night and getting charged,’” Lentz said.

Should we charge students a fee for devices they eventually get to keep?

Some districts with a history of devices coming back damaged have turned to an unexpected revenue source: students.

In Evanston, students pay $50 per year to rent a Chromebook from the district. That money helps the district offset the overall Chromebook costs, which range from $200 to $300 per device. Two in every five students in the district are eligible for free and reduced-price meals; they get the devices for free.

The goal is to remind students that they can extend the lifespan of their devices by treating them like school property, even at home. Their reward is getting to keep them when they graduate.

“If they treat it well enough, it can be a secondary laptop when they go to college,” Chan said.

Not everyone is comfortable with charging students for technology. Leslie Wilson, a public sector consultant who founded the One-to-One Institute, thinks districts ought to look for inefficiencies in their budgets before resorting to asking students to chip in.

“If I have seven copy machines in a high school, what’s that costing me a year? If I can reduce that to x number of machines, I can reallocate those hundreds of thousands of dollars towards technology,” she said.

In some states, K-12 schools are legally prohibited from imposing certain kinds of fees on students. Minnesota, for instance, bans fees for “instructional materials and supplies.”

Lentz’s district is still debating whether to restore a technology fee it used to charge years ago. “We’re really taking our time to vet the concept of that fee through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “We don’t want it to be exclusionary.”

Do we need to hire more people?

Districts will get more out of the devices they’ve purchased if they have people on staff who can help teachers and students learn how to use them effectively. Not all districts are currently equipped with adequate staffing for those kinds of efforts, Doersch said.

“Chances are the fleet of technology has doubled or tripled or quadrupled since when students were in school last,” she said. “The personnel may not have grown like that.”

More than half of district tech leaders surveyed this year by the Consortium for School Networking said their districts lack sufficient staffing to provide instructional support for technology and to integrate technology into the classroom.

Aside from the inevitable troubleshooting, those employees can be useful for gauging the value of technology. In Chan’s district, the tech team talks frequently with teachers to find out how they’re liking a new technology tool, if anything has been confusing, and whether it’s worth continuing to use. During hybrid learning last year, teachers offered feedback on new cameras that followed them around the classroom while they taught.

“We don’t want to force it down teachers’ throats,” Chan said.

Even districts that got a windfall of federal stimulus relief will likely struggle to fill these gaps, as the salary funds are guaranteed to run out in a few years without a stable replacement source.

What do we want all of this technology to accomplish?

During the pandemic, the answer to this question was clear: Students needed a working device and an internet connection to interact with teachers and their peers, access assignments and assessments, and participate in live instruction.

Once the public health threat passes, schools will need to figure out the role technology plays in their instructional approach.

Before the pandemic, Shari Camhi from the Baldwin district purposely avoided achieving 1-to-1 status because she didn’t think the value of those devices would outweigh the cost. “You’re making the assumption everybody is ready for that and is going to use it the way it’s meant to be used,” she said.

Lately, though, she has been excited to see teachers and students collaborating simultaneously in shared Microsoft Office 365 documents. Fifth-graders were able to easily connect with older students to start building relationships they’d have in middle school. Guest speakers can drop in from anywhere in the world.

“If our kids can communicate with an environmentalist organization in California, why would I want to lose that ability?” she said.

The best way to plan for the cost of technology is to envision its function as part of the broader school ecosystem, Lentz said. He’s learned lessons from the days of buying smartboards for all of the district’s teachers, only to find that many just left them sitting on the wall without ever turning them on.

Now, district leaders are trying to envision ahead of time what a technology tool will do for the classroom experience, alongside planning for building improvements and even furniture.

“It’s really becoming this global long-term plan,” Lentz said.

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