Preparing for planned obsolescence in K-12 schools


The term “planned obsolescence” has graced global headlines recently as device manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung face potential legal action. Planned obsolescence refers to the ethically questionable business practice of intentionally limiting the functionality of a product, either through design or software updates.

Lately, education professionals have grown concerned: Since planned obsolescence is indeed a common practice, what are the implications for K-12 schools?

It’s all part of the product cycle, and these tech giants are far from being the only culpable parties. Creating a product that is only intended to last a few years or throttling the performance of a device through updates entices customers to buy the latest and greatest gadgets to meet performance requirements. This boosts sales of such devices and bolsters the bottom lines of manufacturers.

From the perspective of a consumer, this is a frustrating reality. However, for school districts who are growing increasingly reliant on school-issued personal devices and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, it can be outright financially debilitating. What can IT directors do to manage this financial burden? How can school districts plan for planned obsolescence?

Device tracking and budgeting

IT directors know to create a budget for future IT investments, but they rarely budget for technological obsolescence. School-issued devices are a necessity, but districts must exercise prudence when deciding on which devices to use. Only by tracking device data and usage, as well as keeping a pulse on technological trends, is it possible to build a truly actionable budget.

IT directors must rely on reputable consumer watchdog groups for information regarding expected device lifespan, common technical problems and maintenance costs. Consult other educational professionals and school districts for their experiences and incurred costs before investing in a particular brand or device model.

Generally speaking, shelling out for incremental upgrades is inadvisable. Try to only replace devices when they are no longer useful — if the hardware is too outdated to have any real use, it needs to be taken out of the classroom.

As device performance suffers over time, delays and technological restrictions in the classroom become inevitable. The cost of repairing or replacing these devices may be intimidating, but IT directors are capable of anticipating and budgeting for these developments. The key to managing an inventory of tablets, laptops and other devices for classroom use is to track their usage.

There is a suite of applications today that can track how long a device has been used, the programs or websites accessed by users and the location of the device at any given time. Doing so is not only helpful for budgeting purposes, it’s an essential part of IT security.

For school-issued devices, consider using behavior tracking tools. Laptops, tablets, phones, desktop computers — no matter which devices see regular use in your classroom, there are apps to help IT professionals and teachers track user behavior. Some examples of such software include LiveSchool and Kickboard. Many devices also have built-in GPS functionality, and to prevent school property from being lost or stolen, it is wise to take advantage of GPS tracking software.

Inventory management software is also an essential part of budgeting for planned obsolescence. This allows users to access key information about each device in real time, including details from tracking software (like those listed above), the device’s condition, maintenance history and warranty information. Based on this data, it’s a simple process to ascertain which assets will need to be replaced soon and then budget accordingly.

Limit the disruption

When replacing devices, be sure to provide administrators and educators with enough time to make a smooth transition. A gradual transition, in which old and new equipment are used in tandem, is generally the best approach. Migrating software and resources to new hardware can be a time-consuming task, but a gradual transition will give employees reliable access to necessary resources and help users troubleshoot any problems with new devices. Using cloud-based student information systems and applications can also ease technological transitions.

Planned obsolescence can impose challenges on school districts. Nevertheless, through vigilant tracking and regular communication, IT directors can anticipate the costs of device acquisitions, repairs and replacements. With this data, meeting the technological requirements of an inclusive education becomes far more attainable.

Bob Hand writes regularly from Boise, Idaho, on the way that
teachers use technology in the classroom. His education at the University of
South Carolina and his experiences at high schools across the state have led
him to keep a pulse on current edtech issues.