Aug 03 2021

What Is an Asset Tag, and How Can It Help Districts Reconnect with Lost Devices?

Students and educators have more school-issued technology than ever before. Asset tagging helps K–12 IT leaders keep track of these devices.

Come fall, K–12 school buildings will welcome back students, educators and staff members who are ready to reconnect with one another after many months of online learning. To support this digital shift, IT teams supplied laptops, tablets and other peripherals to make learning anywhere a possibility. Now, all of those devices will come back to school buildings.

Beyond personal devices, classrooms are seeing upgrades in educational technology. Many districts are outfitting teachers with improved interactive panels and audiovisual equipment to continue the upward progression.

To keep track of all the new equipment, IT leaders can turn to asset tags. Asset tagging connects devices to their proper homes or responsible parties, which is crucial for all districts. Using asset tags to manage their district’s assets can also help IT decision-makers plan ahead and maximize their budgets. Implementing asset tagging can be a massive undertaking for schools but, with the right process and assistance, the benefits outweigh the cost.

What Is an Asset Tag?

Asset tags, also referred to as asset labels, are unique identifiers for items that need to be tracked. For K–12 institutions, the items are generally devices and other tech equipment, and the tracker is typically a member of the IT department. Often, the asset tags include a barcode that can be scanned to allow an IT professional to track the asset in a database. Bloomfield Hills Schools in Michigan used a barcode method when Jerome Ohnui, the district’s former computer systems engineer, took over the system around 2008.

“While the district had always tagged IT assets using sequentially numbered barcode labels, it didn’t manage that data well,” says Ohnui, who now works as a data specialist for Troy (Mich.) School District. “It began with tracking all equipment in a single spreadsheet, which was untenable and unsustainable. There was also no formal process for asset management, apart from applying a label after unboxing equipment.”

In addition to applying the adhesive label to technologies before they were deployed to classrooms and students, Ohnui implemented a second label to each asset that duplicated the asset tag number and additionally included the purchase order number and date.

“While the duplication of effort seems redundant, in a school environment where vandalism is commonplace, the more data that can be repeated and applied to an asset, the better,” Ohnui notes.

He says that, at first, the IT team manually tracked assets and entered data into the system. However, human error was too high of a risk. “As the process developed over time, we began incorporating more automation to reduce human error,” Ohnui says. “We acquired handheld barcode scanners to scan those barcode labels that had been underutilized for years to record which asset was where.”

Samer Alsayed Suliman, who took over Ohnui’s position and now works as the IT manager for Bloomfield Hills Schools, says that accuracy is still critical for the team’s asset management system.

“Being 95 percent accurate is not good enough, because that 5 percent is still a lot of devices, especially in education,” Alsayed Suliman says. “We don’t buy 20 Chromebooks; we buy 2,000 or 4,000.”

RELATED: These three tips help districts support understaffed IT departments.

Why Is Asset Tagging Important for One-to-One Programs and IT Asset Management?

When Ohnui began organizing his district’s asset tagging information in 2008, most of the devices weren’t mobile. Teachers and computer labs had desktop computers that weren’t easily moved. Now that students are taking devices home, asset management practices need to be more accurate and more strict than ever.

“The increasing shift toward one-to-one initiatives, where students may receive a device from the school to keep for the year or longer, means more mobile technology out in the hands of students and teachers,” Ohnui says. “Greater mobility increases the risk of loss or damage, which then necessitates an adequate supply of replacements.”

Asset tagging allows a district to reconnect a student or a staff member with a lost device. As students return to classrooms, there are many places they could lose track of their laptop or tablet. Even students who don’t travel between classrooms may be bringing their devices to and from school. Without proper asset tagging, relocating the owner of a lost device would be difficult in a district like Bloomfield Hills Schools, which has around 5,400 students.

“We actually check out devices directly to the building, so we can account for how many devices are present within that building, and then the building will check each of those devices out specifically to students,” Alsayed Suliman says. “The principals, associate principals, the teachers and the support staff know those students better than we do, so it allows the buildings to keep track of all those assets within a system where everyone can view that information, including the parents and the students themselves.”

Asset tags also help a district’s IT teams identify a device that’s out of place so they can return it. Occasionally, Asalyed Suliman says, a well-meaning educator will move a device without realizing the implications of relocating it. This happens most often when a teacher is changing classrooms.

“Some teachers will grab all their stuff and bring the computer, the document camera, the sound system, and they’ll just take it with them, not realizing that the technology is not checked out to them but rather is checked out to the classroom,” he adds.

How Can K–12 Districts Manage Their Assets Once They Are Tagged?

Adding the asset tags to the products and putting them in the database is only half the battle when it comes to tracking devices, however. In K–12 schools, regular audits are necessary to discover if an item has been misplaced.

IT teams should plan to conduct their audit during the summer months when students and teachers have vacated classrooms. This allows the auditors to move quickly through each building without disrupting classes or having their own workflow interrupted.

“Data is kept up to date with the best of intentions, but a physical inventory sweep verifies that items are where they’re supposed to be,” Ohnui says.

For districts that don’t have a robust asset tagging program or who haven’t updated their system in a while, the initial audit may take some time. It took Alsayed-Suliman’s team six months to complete its initial sweep of all of the technology in the district’s buildings.

Now, however, “I will probably spend about two hours per building, just randomly checking devices,” he says.

Schools that want to fortify their asset management program can look to outside help as they begin building a system that works for them. “For any district that wants to implement a new asset management system but does not have a 99 percent accurate inventory, I would highly recommend doing a physical audit of all your devices,” Asalyed Suliman says.

Guille Faingold/Stocksy