Lower Merion School District: A case against school-owned laptops

As we learn that the FBI is now investigating the school district for its actions, one can't help but think that schools maybe shouldn't be in the laptop business. However, that doesn't mean that 1:1 shouldn't happen; it just needs to happen differently.

Last week, a number of us at ZDNet covered some angle of the Lower Merion, PA, school webcam fiasco. My biggest concern was the overall affect this would have on 1:1 efforts nationwide as schools work to find the best ways to give students access to computing resources that can be woven into their education. What sort of backlash would there be? As we learn that the FBI is now investigating the school district for its actions, one can't help but think that schools maybe shouldn't be in the laptop business.

This might sound strange coming from a serious proponent of 1:1 efforts. Along with highly-effective teachers, I firmly believe that 1:1 can be transformative in education. However, there are many ways to achieve this goal and the Lower Merion flap should, at the very least, give any schools looking to purchase laptops for their students food for thought. Here's why:

  • When schools purchase laptops, they have a vested interest in knowing their whereabouts. Even the cheapest of netbooks represent a major investment when deployed across a student body and tracking software is frequently deployed for asset management. Is this a privacy Pandora's box that we want to open?
  • Asset management, though well-understood by most corporate types, is not on the radar of the average parent or student. When a laptop is given to a corporate employee, there is absolutely no expectation of privacy. When a laptop is sent home with a student, there is a definite expectation of privacy, no matter how naive or misguided. This disconnect is a recipe for disaster.
  • When schools purchase laptops for their students, the students have no sense of ownership and tend to take care of the laptops accordingly. This isn't universal, of course, and many 1:1 deployments have gone very well; many others have seen theft, vandalism, and damage that resulted in higher TCO for schools than anticipated.

Lower Merion ran afoul of a variety of privacy laws and parent concerns by, as they explained, "remotely activat[ing] Webcams on school-issued laptops 42 times in the past 14 months to find missing computers." Parents, however, were not informed that this was an option. By choosing to use the MacBook iSight cameras instead of a more appropriate solution like those provided by Computrace or server check-in based systems like those built in to Intel's Classmate PC, the district may have jeopardized a successful 1:1-based curriculum.

There is a way to address these concerns, though, and still ensure that students have equitable access to technology. Many districts have partnered with major OEMs to offer parents academic discounts on standardized computing hardware. A sliding scale makes it possible for parents of all income levels to participate (the sliding scale is usually subsidized by the district; this still represents a significantly lower cost than a full, district-sponsored 1:1 rollout). Thus, students and parents have ownership (both literally and figuratively) of the hardware and the school is not responsible for the asset.

The schools would also avoid central management of the hardware, meaning that they would not be able to, for example, remotely activate a webcam. Many districts still support the hardware in-house and provide technical assistance to facilitate warranty repairs, learning activities, etc., but this is very different from managing a deployment of hundreds or thousands of machines.

While some schools purchase the laptops and then allow students in good standing to keep them upon graduation, a 4-year old laptop generally isn't much of a carrot. However, discounted, subsidized, or leasing deals coordinated between schools and OEMs that have students and parents actually purchasing and responsible for the equipment are a different story.

I don't want to see 1:1 initiatives suffer from the Lower Merion publicity (whatever the outcome of the lawsuit and investigations); I do want to see schools make cost-effective, legally sensible choices that ensure widespread access to technology for our students.

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