Feature Pages 37-40
Expect Surprises With
In spite of thoughtful planning, putting new tech tools in the hands of every student and staff member leads to a series of unanticipated developments
BY ERICH G. TUSCH
During a planning meeting in 2004, prior to the launch of our 1-to-1 laptop program, the superintendent said to me with some anxiety, “I don’t want to write the book How I Slit My Throat on the Cutting Edge.”
The prospect of radically changing teaching and learning by issuing a laptop computer to every student and teacher was an exciting one, but we also realized it carried big risks and would take time and thorough planning to execute well. Even with our conscientious approach to the 1-to-1 Laptop eLearning Initiative, surprises came our way.
These are six of the unanticipated things that arose in the Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, N.J. The district serves more than 2,100 students in grades 9-12.
Surprise No. 1: The Maintenance Program
During the early years of the program, we believed we did not have the resources to manage laptop repairs and maintenance ourselves. Therefore, as part of its contract with the manufacturer, the school district required the vendor provide both warranty and accidental damage repair coverage and manage all required paperwork.
In addition, the district required that repairs be done on-site as we believed this would provide increased efficiency, put less burden on our staff to track, ship and receive units, and reduce the amount of time students would be without their original laptop. To minimize the disruption for students, the district leased additional laptops to ensure a loaner unit could be provided while a student’s unit was in for repair.
Warranty repairs are easy to address as most reputable vendors carry strong coverage and will replace failed parts. Coverage for accidental damages are quite different. We learned early on that the accidental damage program was managed by an insurance company. We only realized that when a student experienced damage due to an accident and the insurance company denied the claim, saying the student was careless. We had no control over the decision and found ourselves in the unenviable position of both negotiating claims on behalf of our students and trying to explain to parents why their coverage was being denied.
The second surprise about laptop maintenance arose when we realized our repair costs were highly elevated and we had little recourse. The insurance company managing the repairs was billing a high labor cost against the policy. Because of the additional costs — for instance, ordering and shipping parts and returning damaged parts — we learned the school district and parents were paying more than would have been the case if the repairs were performed by a local shop or someone working directly for the district. To complicate matters, if we were to change our agreement and look for another solution, we could risk the loss of our warranties.
The third and biggest surprise came when the insurance provider informed us that we had exceeded their allowable threshold for repair costs and our coverage was being dropped. If we wished to become reinstated we would need to pay an exorbitant increase to our premium. We learned the insurance company wanted to maintain a certain cushion between the premiums paid and the repair costs absorbed. It was not in the best interest of the district or the taxpayers to ensure the insurance company’s profit margins.
We revisited our financial plan, dropped the coverage with the insurance company and moved maintenance and repairs in-house. Our staff received the required training to become certified to perform the repairs, and we removed the additional overhead involved with a third-party provider. As a result, we sharply reduced our costs and experienced a more efficient turnaround with laptop repairs.
Surprise No. 2: The Inventory- and Repair-Tracking System
We knew it would be important to track laptop data for each unit. We also knew we would want to keep records for laptop assignments to students. We soon discovered we would need to generate reports on a wide variety of data, including the repair history of any specific laptop. These reports would be used to monitor laptop data, provide damage information to administrators and parents and refresh the laptop inventory in time.
In addition, we needed a tool to help us track data for our annual laptop-distribution and -collection processes. Although there are products on the market that will track inventory-related data (serial numbers, computer names, Media Access Control addresses, etc.), we were surprised we could not find a tool that would track and report on the program data we needed. We created our own database, which continued to grow and expand over time, to generate reports on everything we needed.
Surprise No. 3: The Faculty Reaction to the 1-to-1
I often hear educators say they expect older faculty to be the most reluctant and younger faculty to be the most eager to move forward with a technology innovation. At the outset, we shared a similar expectation. Reality was something different. No real corollary existed between faculty reluctance and an individual’s age or years of service.
Instead, a teacher’s willingness to participate in the laptop program was influenced by his or her personal mind-set, attitude and approach to the work of teaching and learning. During the initiative’s first year, the superintendent said one teacher scheduled an appointment to tell him that the day he learned of the decision to move to a 1-to-1 program was the “worst day of his 32-year career.” Conversely, another longtime faculty member said he had been considering retirement but was “reborn” by this decision and decided to stay longer. Yet another teacher said she could not see herself teaching in any other district because she could see how effective the 1-to-1 was in our students’ learning.
We also were rather surprised to learn that many new and younger teachers had never experienced a teaching and learning environment where every student carried a device. Although the younger faculty could use a laptop, teaching in this environment was never part of their training, and some displayed difficulty managing the classroom.
Surprise No. 4: Creativity Unleashed
We knew we had to focus substantial resources on professional development to make effective use of the laptops. In August 2004, prior to our first distribution to students, we organized a four-day tech camp for faculty. The training showed faculty how to use the laptop and launched conversations about instructional changes in the classroom.
Although the decision to participate in the training was voluntary, faculty were paid for their time according to the collective bargaining agreement. We were pleasantly surprised when more than 40 percent of the district’s teachers participated. During the first few months, teachers would willingly find time during their day, sometimes alone and sometimes with colleagues, to plan lessons. This resulted in learning activities that in many cases far exceeded our expectations for the first year of use.
Strong faculty members will welcome an opportunity to learn something new and commit themselves to the change process if they believe they are being treated with respect and are supported in their work.
Surprise No. 5: Managing Hardware and Software via a Wireless Network
Having supported a wired network that included traditional computer labs, our school district had developed processes that allowed the technology staff to effectively manage, with a high level of security, network access, local desktop software and user rights. Moving to an environment that supported mobile devices was quite different, posing unique and difficult challenges.
Although strong security protocols are possible, a school must ensure it has a sound acceptable-use policy, open and positive communications with its parents and a shared understanding that the school cannot control everything a student does with a laptop or prevent all scenarios where a student may make a poor decision.
Incorporating the teaching of responsible computing rather than simply trying to catch students breaking the rules is the more effective route.
Surprise No. 6: Success Brings Program Value and Public Support
In 2003-04, the year prior to our launch of the 1-to-1 laptop program, several issues occurred simultaneously to provide the necessary financing to support the infrastructure, hardware and professional development we needed. For the next several years, the district was able to continue to support the program through its annual budgeting process. However, in 2008, the country experienced the economic collapse in which we still find ourselves.
In 2010, Pascack Valley Regional found itself in a position where it would no longer be receiving state aid under the governor’s severe cost-cutting measures. Like so many school districts, we were left in a serious fiscal crunch.
Many parents and community members turned out to the board of education’s annual budget presentation in spring 2010. Many were quite vocal in their concerns and suggestions for reducing the budget and controlling costs. Not one syllable was uttered about returning the laptops and abandoning the program. The transformation had taken place. Our community had fully embraced 1-to-1 instruction through the laptops, and parents valued the educational experience their children were receiving.
In three decades of work in K-12 public education, I’ve never witnessed nor experienced anything that has had the dramatic, positive and wholly transformative impact that resulted when we put powerful technology tools in the hands of engaged students under the tutelage of an expert teacher. Yes, such a major initiative comes with risks and surprises, but the benefits for students cannot be overestimated or overvalued.
Erich Tusch is director of instructional technology at Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. He previously served for 13 years as supervisor of technology for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, N.J.