I can still remember the carrels of Apple IIgs computers in my middle school library. Friends and I would play “Oregon Trail” during lunch or during free class periods. Later, those computers somehow brought me my first taste of the Internet. Those computers had been there for at least five years before I arrived, and I know that they were there five years after I left.
Obviously, things have changed, with implications for long-term hardware adoption strategies.
Through no fault of their own, schools are now stuck in the same adoption loop as the rest of consumers around the world: every year, the replacement to the product they just bought comes out. Every 3-4 years, their devices are obsolete, and no longer supported by the manufacturer.
What does this mean for tech funding?
Even though iPads might be less expensive overall than those old Apple II’s, the lifespan for a new device is three times shorter.
School technology funding might not reflect this business model. Schools used to make large technology purchases every five years or so. Districts would stagger the funding around the county or city. That timetable now has to be sped up, requiring coordination with all funding sources—local, state, and federal.
One solution might be leasing devices, as many schools have done successfully with Chromebooks. This model shows promise as a way to prevent schools’ need to deal directly with outdated hardware.
Where do the replaced devices go?
We’re very early in the tablet era for schools. Some are just now making their first bulk purchases of iPads or Android tablets. In large districts, that could mean 10,000 devices or more.
Fast-forward to five years from now; what happens to these devices? They will probably not support new OS updates, meaning they can’t be upgraded. Eventually app developers will phase out support of their OS version. Apple’s latest SSL vulnerability is an example of a critical OS component that isn’t available to older devices. This is a dealbreaker for security-conscious administrators.
One way to combat this trend is to embrace the mobile web, questioning the assumption that a “native app” must be installed on the device. That was how the original iPhone worked, so it’s definitely a valid approach. For schools and districts, mobile-friendly web apps are a great way to go.
When the time comes, schools would have two options for offloading old devices. They could sell them at the same auction where they sell old office furniture and broken down school buses for pennies on the dollar. Or these devices can end up in the recycling center/landfill, which doesn’t seem like a suitable end.
There are no easy solutions
These technology tools have the potential to be transformative to the educational experience, leading to better student outcomes. We can’t ignore them. But schools and districts need some help from manufacturers to make this model sustainable for them. Schools need the ability to keep their devices in working order for longer periods.