Every student in Greenwich Public Schools is issued a laptop or tablet. But do they use them?

Photo of Justin Papp
A second-grader at the Riverside School, works on the computer code for his website about snakes at the Riverside School in Greenwich, Conn., Tuesday, June 12, 2018.

A second-grader at the Riverside School, works on the computer code for his website about snakes at the Riverside School in Greenwich, Conn., Tuesday, June 12, 2018.

File / Bob Luckey Jr. / Hearst Connecticut Media

GREENWICH — Nearly three-quarters of the Greenwich High students polled this month said their school-issued computer device was either low or very low quality, and the vast majority of local students use a secondary personal device for learning instead.

This has been an otherwise vastly successful year for the district’s Information Technology Department, which was tasked with an ever-evolving slate of issues as the district drastically expanded its remote learning capabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Chief Technology Officer Michael Ting said during Thursday’s Board of Education meeting.

But the effectiveness of student devices remains one of a few problems that still needs addressing, he said.

“I’d like everyone to think about where we were technology-wise a year ago,” Ting said at the beginning of his presentation. “In just one year we’ve seen rapid change across the school district in many aspects of instruction and infrastructure.”

Those changes included a massive increase in total internet use, by a factor of two year-over-year, an increased need for cybersecurity and, in general, a new reliance on technology for staff, students and parents, he said.

But the results of the survey, to which just over 300 students responded, show that the district needs to adapt further.

“The current device is inadequate in terms of computing power for the demands of the school district specifically with regard to the google meet platform,” Ting said. “Simply put, running a Google Meet ties up so much of the resources of the device that it makes doing other things on the device at the same time difficult to nearly impossible. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why so many students use a second, personally owned device for school.”

Currently, according to Ting’s report, the district has approximately 5,500 iPads, used by elementary students, and 6,000 Chromebooks, used by middle- and high-school students. Ting said he didn’t have a sense what percentage of the devices was going unused, but said that he could easily get a sense by checking when users last logged on to their laptop or tablet.

Anecdotally, school board Vice Chair Kathleen Stowe said her son returned his school-issued device because he preferred using his personal computer, which is more powerful.

“We’ve heard people before say they’ve got school laptops in closets and maybe we don’t need to be purchasing everything,” Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein said.

Ting presented four possible options: The district could use the same device but upgrade the processor, or upgrade all aspects of the Chromebook, including the processor. Or, it could upgrade to either a Windows or a Mac laptop.

The first three options, Ting said, have costs roughly in-line with the current budget. The fourth — purchasing Mac laptops — would be significantly more expensive. But Ting said if cost were not an issue, the Apple laptop would be the clear choice.

Ting stressed no decision had been made on how to proceed and that no decision would need to be reached until next year’s budget cycle.

Board members, however, asked about a fifth option — B.Y.O.D., or bring your own device. That pointed to the results of the technology survey, which shows that nearly 70 percent of respondents use a personal device for school work.

Bernstein said a quasi-BYOD situation already existed and wondered whether formalizing that policy could bring down district costs.

“If we lessen the number of devices we need to purchase and we purchase devices that are incrementally better, I think that leaves us in good shape,” Bernstein said.

Board member Christina Downey asked whether a system could be implemented in which students who didn’t need a school-issued device could return their laptops, which the district could redistribute to students more in-need.

And while Bernstein and board member Peter Sherr opined that the more expensive, more powerful Apple laptops were probably not necessary for middle- and high-school students, board member Karen Hirsh wondered whether the Apple devices would last longer than the current Chromebooks and potentially save money long-term.

“I would expect that the refresh cycle could possibly be increased from three-and-a-half years to four years or five years,” Ting said.

In a tight budget year, however, the Apple computers would be too expensive and the BYOD model is potentially too disruptive. Ultimately, Ting pushed back on the idea, at least for the moment, citing equity, security and support issues. He also noted there is a 95 percent take rate for school-issued devices, potentially suggesting a fairly substantial need among the student body.

“It’s a big change, it’s a big project, it’s not something we’re ready to take on at this time,” Ting said.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586