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The Laptop Crisis Is Imminent — Here’s How to Fix It

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What students have to do to get a laptop.

U.S. classrooms are starting off the school year with an unusual but serious shortage: laptops.

In early September, Education Week noted that many districts across the country found they had hundreds or even thousands of unopened laptops languishing in their warehouses. The web had filled with tales of people eager to get their hands on a new Mac or Dell but being stuck in a bureaucratic holding pattern.

Digital Divide

Since early last year, about 19 million public-school students have received new school laptops from their school districts under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — funding made possible by President Obama’s administration and Congress — along with enough basic tablets to outfit more than 10 million students.

But as new laptops come out at a faster rate than it takes for district IT departments to replace their worn-out and damaged systems, many schools have had trouble finding enough of them to provide a laptop or laptop replacement for every student.

The result has been the creation of a digital divide — some schools have laptops but have enough left over to stock their supplies with just two tablets or mobile computers. Some districts end up giving students one laptop, in order to get it out to every classroom.

There are a number of potential reasons for the shortage.

Unhealthy Promotions

Many new laptops come with purchase incentives from manufacturers that could be as small as $1 or as big as $500, which might be hard to resist for students who are still splitting their days between laptops and tablets at home. More people are buying mobile devices, as tablets have become more affordable than laptops. The lower price of mobile devices makes it easier for students to carry an extra device with them in addition to the laptops.

Older Systems, New Lovers

It’s also possible that many school districts began deploying new laptops a little early and placed too many computers at risk of breakdown or crash, says Kevin Johnson, principal of Los Angeles High School, one of the first Los Angeles public schools to purchase laptops.

Johnson says many of his students were running PCs that had been in use for years — before smart boards were on the horizon. And parents, he adds, often forget to keep up with the latest devices.

Oncoming Ban

Even without the issues of older systems, large numbers of new laptops could affect the quality of technological advancements, says Mr. Johnson.

“In certain places, all the bandwidth is used up by playing games and not by anything educational,” he says. “So it could have a huge impact on real educational developments.”

Computers Have Changed

Most of the class sizes for English and math at Los Angeles High School are around 20 students, so the district is just beginning to expand their laptop programs. Mr. Johnson wants to keep up with the promise of seeing computer technology integrated into the curriculum rather than treated as a peripheral.

“Our student population is largely working-class, first-generation Americans,” he says. “We all realize that if we want to prepare our students for the job market, we’ve got to prepare them for the digital world. But I don’t want to get them here and only give them a laptop. The classroom should be adaptable to what the technology is trying to do.”

Copyright 2018, New York Times News Service

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