IT Infrastructure & Management

Why Schools Struggle to Keep Track of Students’ Laptops

By Lauraine Langreo — April 17, 2023 4 min read
A multi-ethnic group of elementary age children are in the computer lab using laptops. A little boy is watching a video and is listening to music.
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Audits of 20 school districts across New York state found that more than 20 percent of their information technology assets were not properly accounted for, according to a recent report from the New York State Comptroller.

For the audit period of July 1, 2019, to March 31, 2022, auditors selected 1,155 pieces of district-owned IT equipment—such as laptops, tablets, and monitors—to confirm if school districts had properly inventoried them in their records. The auditors then selected 945 of these to see if districts could locate them.

Districts did not properly account for 22 percent of the assets, worth nearly $280,000, according to the report. Only three districts were able to locate all equipment.

The auditors also found that eight districts didn’t have adequate protections in place to keep equipment from being lost or damaged.

School districts across the United States made significant investments in technology devices in recent years, especially when they moved to remote and hybrid learning early in the pandemic. This also meant districts’ technology departments have had more devices to track and protect.

“It’s fair to say that the pandemic created this major problem,” said Louis McDonald, the director of technology for Fauquier County Public Schools in Virginia. “We were not a division of 1-to-1 computing for students, and the pandemic forced us into it.”

With or without the possibility of an audit, all districts should be tracking and safeguarding their technology assets, McDonald said.

“Our superintendent has to have an inventory of what’s out there. Our constituents, the school board have to have transparency in how much we have invested in technology. If you don’t track it, you don’t really know what you have, or better yet, what you don’t have anymore,” McDonald said.

If districts don’t know what devices they have, it will also be difficult to plan and budget for replacement of those devices, said Sarah Radcliffe, the director of future-ready learning for the School District of Altoona in Wisconsin.

How districts keep track of their tech equipment

When Fauquier schools began 1-to-1 computing, McDonald said he knew his technology department would need to invest in asset management software because it would be too difficult to keep track of thousands of devices manually.

Every device given to students and staff has a barcode, and in the asset management system, each barcode is associated with the student or staff member who has that device, according to McDonald. The district also tracks its networking equipment, such as wireless access points and routers.

When a device needs a repair, that is also entered into the asset management system so the technology department has a history of the device, McDonald said.

In Wisconsin’s School District of Altoona, Radcliffe said she and her staff are also using an asset management system to inventory their technology devices and repairs.

‘Our assets are marching around with children’

But even with the management system, there are still many challenges to keeping track of the devices after they are handed to students and staff, according to district technology leaders.

“The other thing is that we’re a school, so our assets are marching around with children. That makes it complicated sometimes to track what’s happening with devices and where they are,” Radcliffe said.

It’s easy to assign a device to a staff member or a student, but it’s trickier to know whether they always have that device and whether it’s still functioning properly, McDonald said.

Tracking devices handed out to staff members is easier, McDonald said. It’s more challenging with students because they are more apt to lose or damage technology, they can change schools or districts and forget to return a device, or those in the same family can end up with their sibling’s device.

“We haven’t been able to come up with a way to validate continuously that the students have the devices we gave them,” McDonald said.

One solution to check if the device is still in use is to find out the last time it connected to the district’s network. If it hasn’t connected for months, the IT department could check in with the student to figure out what’s going on, McDonald said.

Another solution could be a periodic check-in, but that would require having dedicated inventory staff, McDonald said.

Another challenge is figuring out who is responsible for paying for repairs. In Fauquier and Altoona, families are responsible for paying for part of the cost, but McDonald said that his district has probably only collected 10 percent of those fees.

In Altoona, students get the same device every year, which helps “prolong the life of the device,” Radcliffe said. “It helps them know that ‘this is mine to take care of.’”

More resources are needed

Another challenge is the fact that most school districts have relatively small IT departments, according to district technology leaders.

McDonald’s wish list includes a staff member whose job is just inventory. Districts added thousands of new devices without an increase in staff, so now inventory is “everybody’s job,” he said. It’s a “resource-intensive process.”

When it comes to advocating for those resources, Radcliffe said it’s important for district tech leaders to “promote and reiterate that everything that we do relies on technology, so we can’t just say we could probably do without it, because we actually can’t.”

Schools need these devices “to be highly functioning and effective in order to do the business of instruction,” she added.

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