Are Schools Hanging onto Edtech Devices Too Long?

A ‘frugal’ approach to edtech may end up costing districts in the long run—both in teaching quality and real money.

GUEST COLUMN | by Paula Currie

Not that long ago, the question I heard often among educators was whether or not technology devices should be introduced into the classroom. Today, the question is: how can we get every student a device and how do we pay for it?

While most educators today agree that every student would benefit from a technology-enabled classroom, how to pay for it is a little more elusive. More often than not, schools end up using technology devices until they no longer work, and then budget to replace them with new devices. This creates a large capital outlay every five to seven years.

‘Unlike a car that can be driven for years if it is well-maintained, edtech devices even in the best of shape lose their effectiveness over time.’

What on the surface appears to be a frugal approach to edtech, however, may end up costing districts in the long run—both in teaching quality and real money.

Short-changing the learning environment

Unlike a car that can be driven for years if it is well-maintained, edtech devices even in the best of shape lose their effectiveness over time. That’s because older operating systems either can’t keep pace with learning software and apps, or the software creators no longer support them.

When this happens, teachers are unable to engage students in the way they want, can’t use tools that promote learning, and are forced to adapt teaching methods. Students miss out on important educational content, and don’t have the ability to learn in a creative way. As a result, what should be robust learning tools are used simply to surf the web, if they are used at all.

Schools that hang onto devices for too long also can have an unwelcome surprise when it comes time for standardized tests. It’s not uncommon for state testing platforms to phase out support of older devices.

The role of IT also changes. Instead of being integrated into the classroom as tech coaches and instructors, IT employees become the device repair department, a role that these professionals rarely relish. It’s not unusual for tech departments to add staff simply to maintain and repair devices as a fleet ages, which also adds cost to the operating budget.

The optimal lifespan

In my experience working with hundreds of K-12 schools, the typical length of time that schools hang onto devices is more than three years. While that doesn’t seem like a long time, it is in the edtech industry. To illustrate, Apple releases roughly two iPads a year, and has released 20 models or generations since 2010. That means that a four year old iPad may be several generations behind the newest model, and years past the support limit.

The good news for Apple schools is that Apple devices maintain their value on the secondary market and can be traded in for cash that can be applied to purchase a new fleet of devices.

The key is figuring out the optimal time to trade in devices, the point where devices are beginning to lose their teaching value while still maintaining a high residual value. This typically is around year three.

I’ve found that iPads generally are worth about $103 each after three years of use. A district that leases 2,000 iPads for three years and then buys the fleet for $1, which is how these leases are structured, typically can sell their three-year-old fleet for enough money to pay off the first year of the next lease. That drops the cost of ownership for these devices to about $191 each.

This last point is important because many schools opt for less expensive technology that isn’t as effective in the classroom. Since alternative devices cost about $250 each and have almost no residual value at the end of the lease, Apple devices actually cost $55-$60 less to own.

This same approach works for schools that buy devices instead of leasing them. A school that buys 2,000 iPads would pay about $588,000 for them and then would recoup about $206,000 when the devices are sold after three years. The total cost to own the devices for three years would come to just $191 a student or about 35 cents per school day.

The sustainability mindset

In order to continue funding the technology needs of students and teachers, districts will need to adopt technology sustainability models that treat technology as an operating expense, not a large occasional capital outlay.

Under this model, schools can become creative in how they pay for these smaller ongoing costs with programs such as student technology funds. It’s easy to see how a nominal technology fund of $50 per student annually can nearly offset the cost of devices, and promote the proper learning environment.

Paula Currie is Vice President of Procurement for Second Life Mac. She is a 10-year veteran of Apple Inc., where she was a trusted expert on digital learning and 1-to-1 technology. Contact her through LinkedIn.


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