Jun 25 2020

The Dollars and Sense Behind Routine Tech Refreshes

By planning out tech upgrades, school districts can cut down on maintenance and better support instruction.

Until recently, Madera Unified School District in California had little in the way of a plan to replace aging classroom technology. The district’s roughly 1,000 K–12 classrooms were sprinkled with various projectors and laptops at different points in their lifecycles. Most of the projectors weren’t wireless, and many weren’t compatible with teachers’ devices, which forced the IT department to distribute dongles to enable instructors to use the technology.

“They weren’t able to share screens or screencast in a dynamic way,” says Joseph Halford, Madera’s IT director. “Teachers would have to plug in their computers and camp out at their desks. We don’t have a large IT staff, and we were getting a lot of maintenance requests, especially at the beginning of the year. You’d have projectors that weren’t working properly and a lot of bulbs going out.”

The district is now halfway through a four-year plan to replace classroom projectors with interactive displays, and it is rolling out new Chromebooks for students. The refresh of classroom technology will not only improve teaching and learning in the district, Halford says, but it will also drastically reduce the amount of time his department spends racing to fix the problems that pop up all too often with aging hardware.

“By proactively replacing devices before they start breaking, you can reduce the costs associated with repairs,” Halford says. “At the same time, you’re avoiding downtime for your teachers and students. If something is broken, that means learning might not be happening.”

The question of when and how to replace aging technology is one that many school districts struggle with. Administrators and school boards want to stretch their technology dollars as far as possible, but waiting too long to refresh can result in subpar instruction, bloated maintenance budgets and security vulnerabilities.

“The long-standing error that people have always made is they think about the upfront costs of technology as the real cost,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). “But the real cost is the professional development, the recurring costs and the replacement cycle.”

DISCOVER: Read how K–12 schools can measure ed tech ROI.

Balance Time and Costs When Implementing a Refresh Plan

Madera is in the process of replacing classroom projectors with Promethean interactive boards in lower grades, and with Samsung BE82N 82-inch 4K interactive displays in the middle and higher grades. The district is also rolling out Acer Chromebooks to students, leasing the devices to ensure they are refreshed on an ongoing basis.

“Moving to a lease is better for us as far as the whole lifecycle goes,” Halford says. “We look at our total population of devices, divide it by the number of years of the lease, and we know what our costs will be every year. We’re able to replace the devices proactively.”

Similarly, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in California has moved to four-year leases for student Chromebooks. “From experience, I know that after four years, we start to see some slowness,” says Manuel Zamudio, IT director for the district.

Joseph Halford
By proactively replacing devices before they start breaking, you can reduce the costs associated with break-fix repairs.”

Joseph Halford IT Director, Madera Unified School District

The decision to lease or buy comes down to the specific technology — and the specific deal, Zamudio says. Monterey Peninsula is rolling out ViewSonic ViewBoard IFP7550 75-inch displays in its classrooms and opted to purchase the technology outright, in part because the vendor offered a seven-year warranty that protects the district from performance problems well into the future.

Nampa School District in Idaho is also leasing devices — laptops for teachers, tablet computers for K–5 students and Windows laptops with touch screens for students in grades six through 12.

“The ultimate goal was to refresh our device fleet every four to five years,” says Cody Kreps, information services director for the district. “From our research, we found that was around the right time frame. As the devices age, they just have more and more issues. The lease made it affordable, and also allows us to keep up a steady refresh cycle.”

READ MORE: Discover how one technology director developed an efficient, budget-conscious technology program.

Get Buy-In About Technology Needs

When devices first made their way into classrooms on laptop carts well over a decade ago, they weren’t always seen as a central component of instruction. Over time, the laptops would lose keys or fail to boot up, and the district didn’t always have a plan to fix or replace them.

Today, devices are essential to teaching and learning, and districts must take pains to keep them working near peak performance. Laptops and tablets are key to Nampa’s personalized learning initiative, and the district has a number of spares if needed. Parents can opt in to a protection plan at $23 per year, but the district immediately replaces broken devices and then works with parents to figure out replacement costs even if they haven’t paid for the insurance.

“The last thing we want to do is to not get a device back in that kid’s hands,” Kreps says.

7%

The percentage of school districts whose devices are all newer than five years old

Source: Consortium for School Networking, “The State of Edtech Leadership in 2020,” May 2020

Zamudio says his district works closely with teachers to ensure tech solutions meet instructional needs. “We present the demo to them and allow teachers to come in and play with the tools and offer feedback,” he says. “These devices are going into a classroom, and so we don’t want IT to make the decision alone.” 

Still, Zamudio notes, IT professionals sometimes need to educate school boards and administrators on why it’s worth it to spend money on replacing aging technology. “A lot of organizations see technology as a money pit,” he says. “It’s really important to get buy-in, and to make sure everyone understands why it’s essential to maintain and refresh hardware.” 

By refreshing and standardizing their hardware, Halford notes, districts set themselves up to better support teaching and learning. When teachers are all using different devices, operating systems and applications, it can be nearly impossible for IT departments to stay on top of all the disparate tools and quickly solve problems when they arise, Halford says. And when IT can’t keep tech solutions running smoothly, he warns, teachers often simply abandon the technology for pen and paper. 

“By standardizing the devices and the core curriculum and training, we can provide effective support for the teachers, who then feel comfortable using the tools in the classroom,” Halford says. 

Halford adds that spending a little more on refreshes now can save districts money down the line. “If you don’t have a refresh strategy in place, you’re going to end up with a whole bunch of technology that becomes obsolete all at the same time,” he says. “From a budgetary perspective, it makes more sense to proactively plan and budget your refresh now.

LEARN MORE: Find out how school boards see and assess input on classroom tech.

Photography by Robert Houser