Free Laptops For All!

My school district just shelled out $600,000 to issue laptops to every high school student. They also hired a technology expert to manage these laptops. The salary for this position is $130,000 per year. In this wealthy school district, every kid already owns his or her own laptop. Now, they’ll get another one.

Free laptops didn’t work out so well in Hoboken, NJ.

By the time Jerry Crocamo, a computer network engineer, arrived in Hoboken’s school system in 2011, every seventh, eighth and ninth grader had a laptop. Each year, a new crop of seventh graders were outfitted. Crocamo’s small tech staff was quickly overwhelmed with repairs.

We had “half a dozen kids in a day, on a regular basis, bringing laptops down, going ‘my books fell on top of it, somebody sat on it, I dropped it,’ ” said Crocamo.

Screens cracked. Batteries died. Keys popped off. Viruses attacked. Crocamo found that teenagers with laptops are still… teenagers.

“We bought laptops that had reinforced hard-shell cases so that we could try to offset some of the damage these kids were going to do,” said Crocamo. “I was pretty impressed with some of the damage they did anyway. Some of the laptops would come back to us completely destroyed.”

They had to deal with theft, access to porn websites, wireless poachers, and licensing fees. It was a disaster. Now, they have to pay to have all those laptops destroyed.


9 thoughts on “Free Laptops For All!

    1. Maybe to keep images of the student body from falling into the wrong hands? It might be safer to destroy them than to take the risk that a technician wiping them won’t take copies for himself, or to accidentally skip wiping a laptop.

      I can see why they didn’t want the headache.

  1. One thing about providing equipment is that you’re absolutely guaranteed each student will have access to online resources. This means you can completely skip on buying certain textbooks and making all sorts of copies, etc. They may be assuming each family then has access to communications with the school and can require them to use e-mail, for example. But if they’re making this decision based on that math, they are clearly underestimating the total cost of ownership of these devices, and the help desk staffing they’ll need.

    My DD was required to buy a tablet for her selective enrollment program last year, at a cost of ~$200. I was very surprised they were requiring this of families; surely it was a huge problem for some family budgets. In any case, this year they’re backing off that requirement, taking the purchased tablets back for reimbursement, and providing the kids with devices they can use only at school, where they’re supervised. Rumor has it the largest problems revolve around porn, SnapChat/, and other unapproved downloads/installs.

  2. We have a byod program (bring your own device) program. We require everyone to have a computer and we provide computers only for those who can’t afford to buy one. We specifically don’t have to deal with taking care of their stuff. We only triage if they have issues at school. Our school is small, though, which makes the whole thing easier to handle. The reason we went with byod is that we knew the majority of our population could afford computers. It doesn’t make sense to shell out tons of money for something kids already have. We pay for the wifi and online resources and yes, we’re constantly battling the social media bullying crap. That will never end.

  3. We’ve been the beneficiary of a school-issued laptop for Autistic Youngest now these many years. She almost never brings it home, however, as we don’t want the additional risk and the system is locked-down enough that she couldn’t use our home wifi which is smart from a liability perspective. School-issued laptops are rare here: she gets the use of one because of the assistive software they can then provide and the test-taking accommodation that it makes possible. Like you, I’m wary of a program that, by seeking to provide everyone a laptop, gives most of the students with their own personal computer yet one more thing to damage, destroy or lose track of.

  4. I’ve been amazed throughout my kid’s schooling at how much public school can actually end up costing. We are finding that our school has always assumed that every house has wi-fi (which runs about 40 bucks a month or 100 with the TV package), and now our kid’s school is assuming every kid has a smart phone. THere are times during the day when kids are asked to access a video on their smart phones, or to use an app for writing, etc. We feel the pinch of paying for three teens to have smartphones — which our school district assumes they have — and we have two incomes.

    My problem with all of the technology add-on stuff is that it more or less creates a permanent additional household expense for every family and it doesn’t seem like the administrators ever take this into account when climbing on board with new technology stuff. This is certainly particularly problematic in poorer neighborhoods — The solution is probably for wi-fi to be free in every community, provided by the community, but we’re not there yet.

  5. See:

    A commenter left a link implying they used Dell Latitude 2100 netbooks. Here’s someone selling such reconditioned computers on EBay:

    Destroying such computers would imply a loss of about $45 per machine, not including any payment to the disposal company. I presume the disposal company would recondition the machines, and sell them on Ebay.
    If I wanted a cheap laptop, I think I’d look on Ebay for such deals.

    The Ars Technica thread commenters point out that it’s not a good idea to have One Username and One Password for a school system. This fiasco didn’t have to happen. Investing some money in good, in-house tech support would have been a good idea.

  6. The whole thing seems massively foolish to me.

    I’d be curious to hear about the successful laptop programs mentioned in the article and how they made them work, but I’m dubious.

    There would have to be one hell of an increase in learning across the board to justify the cost of equipment, software, upkeep, upgrades, security, replacement fees, etcetera.

    It makes much more sense to me to have extensive computer labs onsite or even laptops that could be checked out for the day, or for longer with a deposit from the family, but even then you need $180k a year for someone to manage security and make sure kids don’t spend their study period looking at Facebook and porn.

  7. It reminds me of the excitement over smart boards, like somehow some technology is going to trump paying top performing teachers a higher salary.

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