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Long live aging edtech!

District can expand the lifespan of computer equipment

Old computers may not be trendy, but as school tech budgets shrink or stagnate, many administrators try to squeeze the most life out of their aging devices. Recycling and retrofitting, and hooking up to the cloud, allow districts to delay or even abandon established schedules for buying brand-new equipment.

In 2015, 8.9 million laptops and tablets were sold to K12 districts in the United States, according to CNBC. And the lifespan of most devices is three years, says Lan Neugent, interim executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA). Most districts replace one-fifth of their devices every year for five years, he adds.

The PARCC and SMARTER Balanced assessments create even more urgency to provide students with current technology. Both organization’s minimum computing requirements roughly describe a computer with technology from three years ago.

Performance pressures drive some districts to upgrade equipment more often, but others use various strategies to extend the life of aging tech. Shelton Public Schools in Connecticut has saved at least $1.5 million (compared to the price of new computers) by modernizing devices considered obsolete, being smart about allocating resources, and working hard to ensure teachers are getting the most out of their technology, says Dan DiVito, the district’s technology director.

Chrome OS

Shelton schools works with Neverware, a company that converts outdated laptops into the equivalent of modern Chromebooks, which require less computing power because they use web-based software rather than storing programs on their hard drives.

DiVito and his team have refreshed 400 aging laptops using Neverware’s CloudReady to install Chromium OS, the open-source variant of the Chrome operating system. “We find laptops at the bottom of teachers’ closets that we can now refresh, turn into a virtual Chromebook, and use for almost any classroom purpose,” DiVito says.

Binghamton City Schools, a district of roughly 6,000 students in upstate New York, uses the same technology with its aging devices. The district used to upgrade computers on a five-year schedule and the laptops taken out of circulation were recycled. Now, Chrome conversions extend the life of the district’s laptops another four years.

“By converting to what we affectionately refer to as ‘Chrometops,’ we have been able to provide a model for paperless classrooms,” says Dawn Young, director of educational technology at Binghamton. “We have also used the Chrometops to implement blended learning to address individual goals. We wouldn’t have had enough devices to try these new ideas before.“

Testing capacity?

The Homer Community Consolidated School District in suburban Chicago can refresh 300 devices in just weeks. They’ve used CloudReady to grow their available devices to 4,000—more than the 3,800 they need for each student to have a machine for testing.

“Homer uses the refurbished devices for PARCC testing in ‘kiosk’ mode,” says Arlene Seifert, technology director. Kiosk mode, a feature in modern operating systems, blocks access to all apps except those needed for testing. This further boosts the performance of so-called “obsolete” machines.

Due to the amount of RAM required by the testing consortia, districts can’t use older computers that may still be able to perform other functions. But RAM is inexpensive and if a computer’s other components can support more memory, the device can get a new lease on life. Operating systems and web browsers can be updated to the current standards as well, depending on the licensing purchased by the district.

But this kind of upgrading requires an IT technician to install the components by hand. “Refurbishment of old computers takes manpower, which is a cost, as well as the components themselves,” SETDA’s Neugent says.

Even if you have an outdated device with sub-par components, most tasks can be performed if you have the right software, DiVito adds.

More creative solutions

The range of demands districts place on their various computers creates opportunities for repurposing machines. When more powerful devices fall out of date and are cycled out of the STEM lab, for instance, they can be used in the front office or elementary classrooms. A computer needs less power if it’s used only for word processing, spreadsheets or email.

Shelton, for instance, doesn’t need all of its computers to have the same capabilities. This repurposing approach has extended Shelton’s tech-buying cycle to 10 years—twice the typical five years that most districts use.

Having more devices, even if they aren’t the latest products, means teachers can be more creative in strategies they use in the classroom, since more students can participate in high-tech lessons. “I’ve seen my teachers revitalized because our computer labs are usable again,” DiVito says. “They’ve started clamoring for and embracing technology. It’s rewarding for my staff to see technology being used more across the district.”

Get the most bang for your buck

Here are some general tips your district can use to extend the lifespan of your devices.

  • Form a culture of collaboration between your technology department, instructor, and curriculum leaders. It’s much easier to find creative, cost-effective solutions through good communication.
  • Perform a census of all the devices in the district, including their hardware and software configurations. A good start is the type and number of machines, how much RAM and processing memory each machine uses, and the current operating systems and web browsers.
  • Generate an accurate count of how many devices can be revitalized or repurposed. Share that information with building-level administrators or teachers. Compare the data to what would be considered acceptable. A good baseline would be the minimum requirements from a high-stakes testing agency.
  • Don’t forget about your network architecture. The easier it is for a machine to maintain an internet connection, the less stress it is put under.

Scott Sterling is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida.