Four Reasons Why School Tablet Rollouts Can Stumble - Or Fail

Four Reasons Why School Tablet Rollouts Can Stumble - Or Fail

Summary: Even the best technology can't overcome poor planning and lack of follow-through.


Nothing's perfect. In creating my map of the 120+ back-to-school iPad and tablet deployments this fall, I learned a few things about what can cause trouble for schools and students. These are good lessons for businesses and other types of organizations thinking about going mobile.

(Check out my list of the 100 Largest iPad Rollouts, which with my recent research has become very school-heavy).

1) Deploying iPads - and then doing nothing else. My colleague John Fontana - he writes the ZDNet blog on privacy technology, Identity Matters - is stridently unimpressed by the iPad deployments at his son's high school. 

"They talked about cutting edge, digital natives, blah, blah, blah. But their digital collaboration thinking was so old school," he commented on my blog. "When they mentioned email and phone calls, I knew I was in trouble. My son last sent an email three years ago and last month he burned a whopping 120 seconds in cell [voice] time."

"Anyway, no text books, no apps, no home work, no digital assignments happened on the iPad all year," he continued. "The thing that did happen was distracting internet surfing and game playing. The iPad experiment was never a discussion topic when I went to parent teacher conferences. I asked about it and was always answered with a grin and a shoulder shrug."

There are multiple sins here: an old-fashioned mindset, a lack of integration into the curriculum and evidently no training for the teachers.

On curriculum, your school doesn't need to adopt e-textbooks from the big publishers. The selection of educational apps and eBooks from alternate publishers is huge.

You can even create your own e-textbooks. Providence Academy, a Catholic K-12 school in Plymouth, Minnesota, did. The teachers developed their own iBooks and lesson plans around literary classics like MacBeth, according to Mark Strobel, director of marketing for Providence eLearning, a spinoff of the school that is marketing the iBooks to other schools.

2) Failing to secure these shiny, portable objects from theft or damage. At Phillipsburg High School in Kansas, 150 iPads were stolen in August one week before classes were to begin.

Or the culprit can be an insider. At Pinellas County (Florida), a middle school teacher was charged with taking an iPad from school and trading it in at a Best Buy, thus ruining her career for a measly $145.

Or take Zeeland High School in Michigan, which had deployed 1,800 iPads the prior year:

While staff predicted 10 to 15 percent of the iPads would need repairs, approximately 15 to 25 percent of the tablet computers were damaged...Austin Bollinger was a graduate who was unhappy with a $140 bill. He thought the district should have invested in a more durable device such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab and had a more reasonable fee structure.

Bollinger, who started an online petition to get rid of the iPads at the school, said the district didn’t have a good educational plan in place for utilizing the iPads.

Bollinger's costly mistake was that he opted out of a $53 insurance policy offered by Zeeland. About 40% of the students bought the $53 insurance.

Insurance has become a requirement at many schools that are deploying iPads this year. Many of the policies are less expensive than the one Zeeland used. 

At Manchester Area Schools, also in Michigan, insurance costs just $35 per year. And the insurance policy that Phillipsburg had on its stolen iPads is helping pay for their replacement. 

That seems reasonable to me. At my kids' school, the parent-teacher association pretty much expects we donate several hundred dollars per student for classroom supplies, not including technology.

Besides insurance, many schools like Arlington High School in Massachusetts, are using lockable carts to secure and recharge iPads overnight.

Schools are also minimizing the pain of lost, stolen or damaged iPads by leasing them instead, as E.D. White and Vandebilt High Schools (Louisiana) did. Leases often include provisions to replace a certain percentage of broken or lost iPads. And the leasing company can also help manage and track down stolen or lost iPads.

3) Ignoring the importance of the network. In the West Linn-Wilsonville school district in Portland, Oregon area, one middle school class deployed Samsung Galaxy Tabs last year. According to Marie Bjerede and Tzaddi Bondi, and authors of the recent report, Learning is Personal, the students using the Galaxy Tabs found that connecting to the school's public Wi-Fi network was a lengthy process that they had to repeat multiple times a day. The network was so poor that many students couldn't connect "even when right next to a router."

The IT department eventually granted the tablets access to the private Wi-Fi network, which helped fix many of the problems. 

In anticipation of such potential network issues,  many schools are doing major campus Wi-Fi network upgrades before they deploy any tablets. This is something about which Cisco has beaten the drum, and the networking vendor may be right.

4) Choosing an immature platform. According to Bjerede and Bondi, they had chosen the Samsung Android tablets in 2011 because they hoped to find a less expensive, more open alternative to iOS upon which to base a future larger rollout.

That didn't prove to be the case, they wrote: 

Although we found a number of advantages to using the Android devices that paralleled the features found in iOS devices, the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem combined with its relative immaturity means a higher degree of technical issues are likely to be encountered with no reliable way to address them yet...In our case, when we had unexplained instabilities in the population of Galaxy Tablets, we wanted to update Android to the most recent version to see if it would help. Only then did we learn Samsung had chosen not to support newer versions of the OS on our device model. 

This is obviously a politically-charged issue. My POV is that such criticisms of Android are much less valid today than 12 months ago. Android is much more polished and manageable than before. Google is slowing down its formerly-frenetic update schedule for Android. And Samsung has told me that it plans to stay much more current on releasing Android updates for products already in customers' hands. 

Moreover, there is an educational Android tablet called the Kuno from a company in Indianapolis, IN designed to provide a turnkey solution for schools. Though the 10-inch Kuno costs $500 apiece like the iPad, it is integrated with device management AND learning management software developed by the company. 

"CurriculumLoft will actually deliver content right to the tablets. Teachers will be able to use CurriculumLoft to deliver that content based on their grades, whatever teacher it is, they just send it out to that student," the IT director for the Cardinal Community School District in Iowa told a local newspaper.

The Kuno is being deployed by schools in VirginiaIllinoisIowa and Indiana

Finally, the price advantage of Android devices versus iPads is even more attractive than a year ago. I found several mentions of schools deploying $199 Amazon Kindle Fires, including San Marcos district in Texas, Whitney Elementary in Las Vegas and the Indian Land Middle School in South Carolina. I didn't find any mentions of schools deploying $199 Google Nexus 7 this fall, though I'm sure there are many. 

Have you observed any school tablet deployments firsthand? What went right and what went wrong?

Topics: ÜberTech, Android, Apps, CXO, iPad, Tablets

Eric Lai

About Eric Lai

I have tracked technology for more than 15 years, as an award-winning journalist and now as in-house thought leader on the mobile enterprise for SAP. Follow me here at ÜberMobile as well as my even less-filtered musings on Twitter @ericylai

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  • Ummm, there is one further problem...

    that perhaps it wasn't the textbooks that were the problem. The teachers and the oddly insane curriculum driven by the teacher's union really does suck. Automating suckiness is still sucky.
    Tony Burzio
    • Really? Truly?

      The curriculum is controlled by the union? Pull the other one mate.
    • Wow

      How do you turn this into a union thing. Look, I am no union apologist, but teacher unions are what keep what few good teachers we have in the field.
      Adam Estep
  • Toys rather than tools

    Just as millions of Apple IIs gathered dust in classrooms, the iPad and it's varied Android counterparts are still at the toy stage.

    The real educational tablet/convertible usage will start with Windows 8.
    • Learning Tools

      I agree that devices might gathered dust in a classroom when it comes to education but that has nothing to do with the actual "brand" or "OS" of the tool.

      You see, a tech tool (ie. tablet) is not EDUACTIONAL per se.... is just a LEARNING TOOL.

      Education and Learning are two separate things. Take a car or a bicycle for example, it was design to improve upon a process or action...rather than walking, you can take a bicycle and get to a place faster. On the other hand you can by a luxury bicycle and just take it out for a stroll in the park every once in a while.

      Same principle applies to technology. The tablet and the Apps they run increase the learning potential for an individual (ie. learning math and fractions)...why? Immediate feedback, endless ways to practice, multimedia incentives, personalized learning to match a learning style, etc.

      So the question is, if a Kid can LEARN fractions with a tablet faster and better, can a tablet EDUCATE a child? No, that is the roll of the teacher...or should we say, the EDUCATOR?

      Today, like never before, technology tools allow both the student and the teacher to become better at what they do. The teacher can EDUCATE and the STUDENT can learn "at-his-own-pace" and practice newly acquired skills.

      So, each school, each teacher and each student can decide if the grab a tablet and treat it as a toy or as tool (food for thought...the same basketball in your hand and my hands has a much different value that in Michael Jordan's hands).
      • Re:Learning tools

        This post screams out a simple lesson that schools are overlooking. TRAINING. You are correct this technology has the right ideas in mind, helping the student. What schools and districts don't do is train the teachers to use it effectively. Too many times teachers are handed these technology products and told to go use it... What a waste of money. You think the teacher that has been teaching the same thing for 30 years and is 2 years away from retirement is going to change what she has been doing for so long. Although there are many things wrong with that situation fundamentally, the problem is pretty much across the board. Teachers need to see the advantages of using this technology in their teaching styles. They then need to be trained on an ongoing basis because they will develop questions as they use it in their classes.
        The other issue with tablets especially iPad, is they are geared to the consumer, not the school. I don't care what apps you put on the iPad, a kid knows that all they need to do is plug it into their home computer and wipe it clean now they have an iPad to do whatever they do on them.
        I like the reference to kuno and curriculumLoft. This is the only tablet geared to education because it gives the teacher control to what and when students see. It is also durable and won't crack like the iPad I am typing on right now. The whole security issue and information delivery system is what makes kuno and curriculumLoft stand out. CL has recently released an iPad app that allows teachers to send class Materials to iPads as well.
        With any rollout of technology, schools miss the boat because they don't have plans. Curriculum loft is the driver of all tablets that controls content and security. Then you need to train people to use these technologies. I encourage all to take a look.
  • Research before Investment

    Mr. Lai makes many astute observations in his article, particularly in regard to schools deploying technology and “doing nothing else.” Holistically, the success of any technology in the classroom comes down to the research that teachers and administrators perform before they invest in any new technology. Diligent research before any purchase is of monumental importance.

    I agree with Mr. Amador’s assertion that any technology can be considered a toy if it is not handled properly; however, the claim does not hold true if the technology in question is designed to only allow access to educational content. The iStartSmart by Hatch Early Learning is the tablet based approach to learning redesigned. The software of the iStartSmart is programmed to only allow students to access applications and interfaces that teachers and administrators deem acceptable. Additionally, the iStartSmart comes with a patented rubberized cover to vastly reduce wear and tear. Most importantly, Hatch couples all of its progressive technologies with hands on training by Classroom Integration Consultants and lifetime customer support. In fact, a Hatch client posted to Facebook yesterday praising Hatch’s superb customer service: r+0ldxy9c000zg4yhsvp32s02rylv1upazc00002slproov00002slproov25h1i@reply.facebook.com.
  • For Early Education...hate to say it, but iOS is better

    As an android preferred user, I hate to say it, but iOS, at this point, is better suited for education uses. My 2.5 yo twins can easily use my iPad or old iPhone to play games with little to no instruction. It's just more intuitive than android.

    Additionally, app choice is so much deeper and varied. Educational apps are just not as prevalent in android at this point.

    Finally, security is better on iOS too. It s less hackable and you have great apps like "find my iPhone/iPad".

    Like I said, I hate to say it. I much prefer android personally, but when it comes to my kids and education, go with what irks bes for them.
    Adam Estep
  • Android tablets made ideal for schools with management system

    True, Android did have to play some major catch-up, but now both the hardware and the OS can compete with iOS, and there are some great apps. But one problem with both iOS and Android early-on was the inability to really manage them in a classroom environment to keep students on task. Thanks to the release of a tablet management system called TabPilot, schools can now have each teacher select the apps that can be used during their class period and students are locked out of everything else. Admins can get inventory of all apps on all devices. Further, the system can even install or uninstall apps remotely to a whole group of tablets via the centralized cloud-based web manager-- and it's all wireless. You certainly can't do that sort of thing on iOS, as Apple won't allow developers that kind of control. Karon Mahon reviewed and wrote about the TabPilot system on her blog: http://karenmahon.com/2012/11/01/classroom-tablet-management-solved-by-tabpilot/