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Big 1-to-1 Tablet Initiatives Halted in North Carolina, Texas

Two large-scale efforts to put digital tablets in the hands of students, including the largest deployment to date of the much-publicized Amplify tablets, have been halted.

In Texas, the 70,000-student Fort Bend Independent School District scrapped a 19-month old initiative known as iAchieve after a consultant found that "the program fell short of its mission due to a combination of unrealistic goals, insufficient planning and project management, lack of consistency with existing FBISD curriculum development standards, and poor contract management practices." A total of 6,300 iPads had been distributed to Fort Bend 2nd through 8th graders at a cost of $16 million.

In the 72,500-student Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, meanwhile, officials announced on Friday that they have suspended the use of tablets and related equipment provided by Amplify, the education division of the global media conglomerate News Corporation. According to a release issued by the Guilford district, "since the start of the school year, about 10 percent of the district's 15,000 devices have been returned to Amplify due to broken screens" and "schools have also reported problems with approximately 2,000 Amplify-supplied cases." A student charger had also overheated, causing its plastic casing to melt, according to the release.

The Guilford initiative has been funded through $30 million in federal Race to the Top-District funds and $5 million in supplemental grants, according to the release.

"We remain committed to personalized learning and our one-to-one initiative," said Superintendent Maurice O. Green in a statement. "We need to get these issues resolved quickly so we can continue the good work already underway in our schools."

In an email, Justin Hamilton, the senior vice president for corporate communications at Amplify, said the hardware problems appeared to be anomalies that are not indicative of a widespread product defect.

"We want to work with Guilford to more closely understand" the unusually high breakage rates at some schools and the isolated charger incident, wrote Hamilton. "Is it because there is something different about the tablets at those schools that no other school in the country is experiencing? Or is there is something different about the way students in those handful of schools are handling the tablets?"

Hamilton said that roughly 20,000 Amplify devices are currently being used nationwide by seven districts, some of which are subsidized pilot sites and not paying customers.

The Amplify tablet is the ASUS MeMO Pad ME301T. Hamilton said the broken-screen rate for the devices in other districts is roughly 1.9 percent.

(Disclosure: Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, a division of Amplify, serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education. EPE is the nonprofit that oversees Education Week.)

Fort Bend Management Problems

The full report on the problems in the Fort Bend district, prepared by the Gibson Consulting Group last month, offers scathing assessment of that district's one-to-one rollout.

Fort Bend Superintendent Charles Dupre ordered the review shortly after being hired in April. The iAchieve initiative—intended as a "software platform and a wireless network for the delivery of interactive science curricula," according to the report— was launched by Dupre's predecessor, Timothy Jenney.

Among the problems the report highlights:

  • An overly aggressive timeline: "Even under optimum project management practices, the District would likely have fallen short of its projected timetable for such a complex project."
  • Insufficient project management: "The iAchieve program was hindered by not having a qualified, fully dedicated staff member with expertise in large-scale project management, curriculum development, and instructional technology to coordinate the various teams and contractors involved in the program."
  • Poor contract management practices: "Project deliverables and payments did not match the contract requirements, and highly unrealistic timetables were negotiated and agreed to by both parties."
  • Lack of consistency with FBISD curriculum standards: "The methodology used in writing the science curricula, which emphasized specific scripts for teachers and did not follow the District's lesson-building standards, resulted in content that teachers and Curriculum Department leaders felt was unusable without substantial changes."

On September 9, the Fort Bend ISD board heard the details of the report and were promised swift action by Superintendent Dupre.

"We will follow up on those questions in a timely manner, and engage legal counsel where needed to determine whether any unethical or illegal activity may have taken place," said Dupre in a release issued by the district the following day. "As we move forward, we will develop sound plans in a transparent, collaborative manner that will be shared with the Board in a public forum to enable the District to capitalize on the investments of equipment, curriculum development, and computer programming. The goal is to redeploy these resources in a manner that allows us to use them in our classrooms to support achievement." 

On Monday, district spokesperson Nancy Porter said all the iPads are still in use in Fort Bend classrooms.

There are about 2,000 schools around the country that now have 1-to-1 computing programs, according to the Mason, Mich.-based One To One Institute, a nonprofit that helps districts implement such initiatives.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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