Christmas came early for 110 fifth graders at Jefferson Elementary School courtesy of
Santa Claus New Rochelle taxpayers. After weeks of claiming that this year’s school budget is a “maintenance program” that keeps spending flat (by increasing it by $8,000,000), the City School District of New Rochelle has begun rolling out an OFF-BUDGET program to provide 110 brand new Dell Inspiron Mini laptops to every fifth grader for free. Talk about a good way to buy some school budget votes with taxpayer money! The sounds like about 200 votes right there from some very contented parents.
Somehow, with a budget supposedly cut to the bone, the district has now managed to come up with $39,000 to purchase 110 laptops for every 5th grader at Jefferson Elementary School and has plans to expand the program to every public elementary school in the City. For 1,000 elementary school students this program will end up costing somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000.
Neither the 2008-09 or 2009-10 budget mention the so-called “5th Grade 1:1 Laptop Initiative” raising questions about how many similar OFF-BUDGET programs are being snuck into the heavily padded “maintenance budget”. I was the school board meeting at Jefferson School a few months ago where IT Director Christine Coleman presented to the board. I recall her spending a great deal of time talking about the dangers of Facebook and “sexting” and nothing about a new laptop give-away program.
In past years the District has claimed that students at the high school need to have access to expensive computing technology in order to prepare for college or the workplace. Once the computers were in place the district claimed that to prepare middle school students to use all that technology at the high school they need to have lots of computers at the two middle school nows. With that accomplished the district is now looking to apply the same argument to further expanding technology spending into the elementary school where students already have access to at least one computer in every classroom, extremely expensive projection screen displays in every class (“smartboards”).
“What we’re looking to do is bridge the gaps for these fifth-grade students who are going into sixth grade at middle schools that are already rich in technology,” said Christine Coleman, the district’s technology director.
If you apply the district’s logic here then there is no reason to stop at 5th grade students and you can see where this is headed – giving away computers to every student.
Why is this give-away of taxpayer funded computing technology not being needs-tested? Surely some of these students comes from families that COULD afford the $300 to purchase the device?
Would it not be more cost effective to simply require every student in New Rochelle public schools purchase a laptop and then give families several options: (1) buy a new high-end laptop; (2) buy a high-end but used laptop; (3) buy through the school which could purchase in bulk and thereby offer a large discount; (4) offer parents the option to purchase or lease a computer through a district sponsored program. Once you have thus identified all the students who cannot otherwise afford a laptop you offer them a free or subsidized Dell Inspiron Minis. “Hot lunch” students might automatically be eligible for a fully subsidized device.
Let’s be clear on the money involved here. The preliminary 2009-10 budget calls for $4.7mm in spending just for INSTRUCTIONAL technology.
Let’s also look at the devices themselves. From the Dell website we get the following information:
- Connect with advanced wireless options
- Light and compact for an on-the-go lifestyle
- Dynamic & Customizable user interface
- 4 hours battery life & just 2.28 lbs
CNET, a leading technology review web site, has a video review:
The always reliable District shill, Aman Ali shows how to lie with statistics:
The district appropriated about $39,000 from this year’s budget to give 110 Dell Inspiron Mini laptops to the students. Minis and similar laptops are surging in popularity across the country for their cost and mobility. A 9-inch laptop can retail for about $300.
Yes, a 9-inch laptop CAN retail for about $300 but the District is not buying “a 9-inch laptop” they are purchasing 110 Dell Inspiron Mini and they DO NOT retail for $300. The standard configuration for the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is 1GB of RAM, a 16GB solid-state hard drive, and Windows XP. According to CNET, that configuration costs $514 which notes “you can get the Inspiron Mini 9 down to as low as $349 by opting for a smaller hard drive (4GB or 8GB), 512MB of RAM, an Ubuntu Linux OS, or knocking down the Webcam to a lower-resolution option.
The typical “netbook” style of laptop retails for about $550 not $300 and by significantly reducing the specs of the device it gets to $349.
In fact, the article says the District spent $39,000 on 110 laptops which average out to $354 per laptop which would take into account $349 for the low-end version of the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 plus some additional funds to run set up 3 or 4 $50 Wifi routers. So either the school got an educational discount and then applied that discount to purchasing 110 licenses for Windows XP or they opted for the geeky Ubuntu Linux OS instead of MS Windows. They are apparently not planning on spending anything on additional software and will rely on Google for free online word processor, spreadsheets and presentation software.
The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 falls well short of the MSI Wind and the HP 2133 Mini-Note because it doesn’t offer an extended battery and large-enough storage options. And you’ll have to punch in an E-Value code (1-DNDMXA1) to get this limited-time offer price of $399. Otherwise, the list price is the same as that of the Wind’ ($474).
As someone with more experience than anyone working for the district when it comes to technology let me point out three of the biggest problems with this new taxpayer-funded computer giveaway program other than the obvious one is that we are creating a new technology entitlement.
1. Computers require electricity. Let’s set aside that the district is claiming all sorts of cost savings by reducing electronic spending next year while planning to add 1,000 power-hungry new laptops to the school grid which will only INCREASE electricity consumption (now imagine 12,000 laptops). The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 advertises a battery life of 4 hours. Anyone who has used a laptop knows that computer manufactures always exaggerate this claim and that whatever battery life you get initially, that number always go down over time. NotebookReview.com tested a brand new Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and it ran for 3.4 hours. LaptopLogic.com ran a similar test and it ran for 2.8 hours and took 2 hours to complete a full re-charge. I would expect that assuming normal usage, by the end of the year the battery will hold a charge for less than 2 hours. So, what does that mean as a practical matter? It means that with 110 laptops in the school, 20-25 laptops in a classroom, every single laptop will need to be re-charged at least once during the course of a 6 hour school day — and probably more than once — or each computer will need to be plugged in throughout the school day. That means that every classroom will need to be set up with extension cords and surge protectors which will need to be snaked around the classrooms. If not, that means that every few minutes a student will interrupt the class to announce that their laptop “died” and they will need to get up and plug it in and then wait two hours for it to be fully re-chraged to get another 3 hours use out of it. The batteries themselves are Lithium-Ion batteries which degrade quickly if they are fully-depleted before recharging which means that the batteries will hold a charge for less and less time over the course of the year.
2. Cloud Computing Requires Access to the Cloud Before proceeding I want to briefly touch on the idea of “cloud computing” which Christine Coleman has apparently deluded herself into imaging is some sort of panacea. Cloud Computing a fancy new term for a very old idea. In the olden days from the dawn of computers up until the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, all computing was down on central computers which were shared by multiple users and accessed via “dumb” terminals which had no significant storage or computer-procesisng power of their own. Personal computers changed all this by placing low-cost storage and processing power in the user’s device so that word processing or spreadsheet calculations could be done locally on the user’s personal computer In the past couple of years as Internet speeds have improved, there has been a trend back towards this older computing model. One example is that instead of installing Microsoft Office on a personal computer you access similar software (word processor, spreadsheet, etc.) from a central location where the user logs in to a central location. Google is one of many companies now offering this sort of service. For now, most of these services are offered at no charge as a way to hook users into using other services where the company can charge fees or sell ad space. Cheap, basic devices like the Dell Inspiron Mini are known as “netbooks” because they are designed as sort of modern versions of the old “dumb” terminals in that the primary use is to access other computers (web sites, email, etc.) and use computing services remotely over the “net”.
The Journal News article begins with a teacher asking his students to get out their laptops to “save their assignments on a Google document he set up for the class”. The school district is going to save money by using Google’s free word processor rather than pay a licensing fee to Microsoft. Let’s set aside the question of how the student’s were able to connect to Google’s web site when the same article ends by noting “The next phase of the Jefferson program will be to integrate the laptops on a new wireless network.” The always gullible Aman Ali perhaps forgot to ask how student’s were able to connect to Google when the school says it has not set up the wireless network through which students will access the Internet.
The district needs to install these WiFi routers because without them the Dell Inspiron Minis are basically expensive 2.2 pound bricks. Without Internet access, the students cannot open their files stored on Google or use the word processing software. It is possible to access Google files when offline using very new “beta” software called Google Gears but it is not software for novice users and certainly not for 5th graders. So what happens when a student goes home? If the home does not have high-speed Internet access then the student will not be able to access Google (well, they can on dial-up but it will be so painfully slow as to be largely unusable). So, for students without broadband Internet access they are not going to be able to access Google docs, shared documents, collaborate with other students or send/receive email until they get back to school.
3. Lots of users require lots of bandwidth WiFi routers and broadband Internet connections have a fixed capacity to handle uploads and downloads of data. The more simultaneous users on a network the more the “pipe” gets clogged and the slower the average connection speed for the users. The District is going to need sufficient capacity to handle peak loads which will occur between 8:30 am and 3:00 PM on school days. So, the District will building a system that initially can handle 110 simultaneous WiFi users for 6 hours a day for 180 days out of the year. For the remaining 18 hours a day for 180 days and 24 hours days for 185 days, the network will be significantly underutilized. I mention all this because the district is likely going to see to dismiss the concerns about power consumption, electrical cables and battery life by claiming that the laptops will not be in use the entire 6 hours of a a school day. Perhaps, but that only means that the network they need to build will get even less use. There is no free lunch here – either you need to build significantly underutilized network capacity for the few hours a day when it is needed to make the “netbooks” functional or you are going to be using them enough that drained batteries will require constant recharging.
I am sure other folks have other questions and I hope people will attend the next board meeting on April 21st to ask them. Everyone gets three minutes to talk and I am sure we can cover a lot of ground if a few people other than me will show up. We might then ask…
How is giving away free laptops to 5th graders going to “bridge” the “gaps” claimed the the school district? What “gap” and how is this a “bridge”? Can’t this gap be bridged using the 4,000 computers we already purchased by the District?
If the goal is to bridge some mythical gap that exists between elementary school kids and middle school kids then why give these computers to 5th graders in April? They have about 10 weeks left in elementary school so that these computers will all be leaving Jefferson in June and will all be over at Isaac Young Middle School where, according to Christine Coleman, the school is “already rich in technology”.
The district wants to compare the laptops to textbooks but unlike textbooks laptops have other uses besides typing school reports and can access the Internet from ANY network connection at home or elsewhere, so what steps are being taken to make sure school property is not being uses to engage in unlawful behavior such as using the devices to visit pornographic websites, engage in online gambling or otherwise being used by people other than the student once the laptops leave school grounds?
Why are we buying laptops for every 5th grader when a majority of families in New Rochelle already have computers at home at the school district owns 4,000 computers or more than 1 computer for every 3 students? Why is EVERY student getting a computer regardless of need?
Why have we invested millions in computer labs and projection displays only to now turn around and start giving away individual computers to every student?
Has the district consider the risk of running a story advertising the fact that every 5th grader at Jefferson School is carrying around a laptop in their backpack? It sounds like “open season” on these kids for gangbangers and assorted local hoodlums who will find 9 and 10 year old children carrying around hundreds of dollars in easily fenced computer technology a tempting target
What can students do now that they have laptops that they could not already do with the technology currently installed in their classrooms?
Why do students need laptops to write down their homework assignments?
Parents have signed a document taking “responsibility” for the laptops. What does that mean? For parents who can not afford a laptop today, what is going to happen if their child’s laptop is lost, stolen or damaged? If the parent cannot or will not pay to replace a laptop does the district plan to replace the laptop? If not, won’t that mean that as laptops drop out of service for various reasons that an increasing number of these 5th graders will not have laptops in class? This is not to mention students forgetting to bring them to school.
What happens at the end of the year, after kids have been banging these laptops around in their backpacks for 12 months – scratched screens, keyboards with soda and food in them, missing keys, chips, broken ports, etc. Who gets these “used” computers next year? How long are these netbooks expected to last with the kind of beating they will get after being dropped, kicked, made wet or otherwise abused by the 10 year old kids who are entrusted with these devices. I will make a prediction that more than half these computers will be out of service at some point during the year and more than 20% of them will either be “gone” or beyond repair at this time next April.
Teachers have been complaining for years that the District blocks a very large number of web sites rending the technology they have in their classroom virtually useless when it comes to access information on the web, how will giving each child their own personal laptop change that?
Please add additional questions in the comment section.