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Four Reasons Why School Tablet Rollouts Can Stumble - Or Fail

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?

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