Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hoboken, NJ's failed 1:1

This post originally began as a response to the WNYC article "Why Hoboken is Throwing Away All of its Student Laptops." I posted this response it two different Facebook groups (here & here) discussing the article and thought I should expand some thoughts in this post. Here is my original response...

There are a ton of issues at play. Not the least of which I would say is a bit of a sensationalized article... 
1) from the sound of the article the laptops were bought 5 years ago, never upgraded, and never recycled. If I got every broken & obsolete device I've had over a 5 year span I'd probably fill a room too (I've kept my ASI recycle invoices, I can look it up but it's easily over 200 devices - I has a 60 piece pickup once).
Which leads me to... 
2) a plan for tech is more than purchasing. It's scalability & life cycle too. If I buy 20 iPads tomorrow I know exactly who gets them & I know that I'm going to take their existing iPads and refurbish then & then redistribute to folks not at that level. We've got almost our entire staff (100) on at least iPad 2s. Starting to scale everyone up while upgrading the laggers. Eventually we'll have close to 100 iPad 1s that are obsolete, not through anything we've done but rather the nature of OS updates and 5 year old devices. When I recycle those iPad 1s am I equal to Hoboken? 
3) as others have said, the human element is key. Staff to shepherd & support the implantation. Problem is grant money rarely pays for people and it's often tough, from a budget perspective, to justify a full-time non teaching salary. And it's easy to buy equipment and let it die, rinse and repeat. It's a lot harder to hire someone, scrounge for funding, the excess/layoff etc when the funds dry up
4) why does no one allow for a pilot? I'm sure the millions had to be spent by a Cretan date, hence the hundreds of devices and no plan. I blame the funders. Why can't the govt (or whomever) say "here's $300 million, but first show me your plan, timeline, etc" then let the school or district take a year or two to do small roll-outs and testing to figure out the best way to go all out. I bet the Hoboken millions were for laptops, and laptops only. What about wifi access points, servers, replacement parts, etc. these grants need to be given with more oversight of implementation plan and fewer restrictions on what specific items need to be purchase.
And there ends my ramble, for now </rant>

The biggest issue I always see if the forced expenditures for large scale purpose with little oversight. An example...

My school was part of a settlement between New York State and Microsoft. It resulted in the Microsoft Software Technology Voucher (SVTP) program. The "purpose" as NYS told us, was to provide technology to prepare for PARCC testing. Before the money was released we had to fill out a survey which told us how many devices we were expected to have for PARCC compliance. We were told we needed 145 devices to be PARCC ready. We got roughly $50,000. The problem?

  • the money was split, fairly evenly, between 2 spending codes: Specific and General
  • Approved items in General were listed in an Excel sheet with over 4,000 rows (not a joke)
  • Approved items in Specific were listed in an Excel shet with just under 900 rows (no, not a joke, under 1,000)
  • Specific had zero, zilch, nada hardware options and the software options were mostly out-of date title like Carmen San Diego

I ended up spending my $25,000 in Specific on Adobe Creative Suite, Acrobat, SnagIt, DiscoveryEdu, and a few other small software titles. No slouches and all very solid products, but if the grant was for $25,000 and designed to get devices in student hands, wouldn't that $25,000 have been better spent elsewhere?

If I was really supposed to prep my school for PARCC, and this money was truly supposed to support technology for students, why not give the full amount to a single pot and let us spend it on anything we wanted? If I had $50,000 of unrestricted funds I could have gotten my 3-5th graders into a 2:1 Chromebook environment. That would have been instantly valuable to my students. Instead I had to spend weeks trying to figure out how to spend $25,000 on mostly out-dated software (all the while being hounded by those in charge, telling us to "spend before you lose it" and "it'll look bad if you lose the money"

As with anything, all schools and districts will have different experiences. But I think a few things need to happen to make implementations more effective:

  • require detailed plans for implementation, use, and scalability
    • who is in charge, what will students create, plan for repairs and updates, plan for time beyond grant funding
  • no more specific grant money
    • by this I mean grants that say "laptops" because that might not allow for buying carts, wifi access points, servers, replacement chargers, external mouse, etc, etc, etc...
  • no more order deadlines
    • forcing order-by dates potentially misses out on impending hardware upgrades, price drops, small-scale pilots to verify use, etc
  • allow for slow roll-outs
    • related to above, buying 1,000 iPads might be great, but are you ready to get all 1,000 boxes all at once? Is there a plan for unboxing, provisioning, distributing, etc
  • allow for pilots
    • related to above, time should be allowed to spend in small batches, make sure iPads or Chromebooks truly work they way anticipated, before making a large purchase
  • allow for changes to the original plan based on pilot evidence
    • make the money & plan flexible. If the plan is for 100 iPads and 100 Chromebooks, the testing iPads shows pitfalls, but a pilot of Chromebooks shows success, allow for removing iPads and doubling Chromebooks

Grants are a double-edge sword. It's one-time money so when you get it you need to already be planning down-the-line expenditures, making sure you account for future repairs, replacements, and upgrades. Forcing buy times rushes decisions and shortchanges testing & training. The rush to fund is often the biggest factor in technology initiatives failing. 

If technology implementations are to succeed they need to be planned, tested, and purposefully rolled out to properly trained staff. Lump sum grants with restrictive guidelines and short timelines will always lead to Hoboken type situations...

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