Who owns the laptops and tablets used by students and teachers, and how does this affect their use?

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yes, that?s right, that new tablet is mine, all mine! (or is it?)
yes, that’s right, that new tablet is mine, all mine!
(or is it?)

Many countries and education systems around the world are currently engaged in large-scale efforts to introduce huge numbers of computing devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) into schools and into the hands of teachers and students,  and many more initiatives are under serious consideration. However one might feel about such projects (in general, or in particular instances), there is no denying that these can be quite complex undertakings, rolling out over many years, in multiple stages, with many interdependent components (related to e.g. infrastructure, content, training, assessment), and costing (tens of, sometimes hundreds of) millions of dollars. When planning such initiatives, there are many questions to be asked, large and small. One question that I don’t find is typically given much serious attention relates to what would, at first glance, probably appear to be a rather simple one, with a simple answer:

Who owns the laptops (tablets) that will be distributed to students (teachers)?

I regularly ask this question as part of my interactions with leaders of various such projects around the world. I find that I rarely get a simple or complete answer. This is potentially problematic, as the responses to this question, and a set of related ones, can have a very profound impact on how such projects function in practice, and thus on their (potential) impact as well.

Here’s one example of why this sort of thing is important:

In one country’s teacher laptop distribution program that I evaluated a number of years ago, the decision was made by the ministry of education to assign ownership of the laptops to each individual school, with the headmaster of each school responsible for setting the rules and policies related to the ownership and use of the laptops. As a result of not having unscheduled time during the school day, it was assumed, if not expected, that teachers would take the laptops home for use in things like lesson planning. A lot of money was spent on teacher training with this goal in mind. During the first week of the deployment in one of the first schools to receive laptops, a teacher brought her laptop home – and it was promptly stolen. When she reported this theft to her school principal, she was told that she was liable for the full cost of her laptop – a sum equivalent to a few months’ salary -- to be paid immediately! One result: Other teachers in the school decided not to take their laptops home – and, given that they were now all online and had official email accounts that they were encouraged to use, quickly spread news about what had happened at their school, leading large numbers of teachers in other schools who had been assigned laptops to decide not to take them home either. This was a rational choice, some might argue, given the precedent for potential immediate financial hardship that had been set, the lack of an official related policy communicated to teachers, and the fact that most of them had been teaching for many years without laptops (and so had few qualms about not using one in the new school year). Government officials were left wondering why so few teachers were using their new laptops to visit any of the official lesson planning resources that had been developed (at not insignificant cost) and uploaded for their benefit to the national educational portal.

I have shared that anecdote (and a few similar ones) with educational policymakers planning large scale roll-outs of so-called “1-to-1 education computing” initiatives (each person her own device) for quite a few years now.  Once I have caught their interest, I typically pose a set of five related questions to them about what they are planning:

  1. Who owns the device?
  2. How can it be used?
  3. If it ‘breaks’, or is ‘used improperly’, who is ‘responsible’ and what are the consequences?
  4. Who decides the answers to these questions?
  5. How (or to what extent) is this information communicated to key stakeholder groups – school administrators, teachers, students, and parents?
In an unfortunate number of instances, I find that these issues have not been considered in any systematic or strategic way. When I pose these questions after the fact to people who have led such efforts, I often find that they say that things like, we wish we’d paid more attention to these issues on the front end, as it really impacts usage, and that their answers to these questions had changed over time, based on what they had learned (sometimes painfully) during the course of their country’s related programs. There are no universally ‘right’ answers to these questions – but plenty of wrong ones.

When asking and answering such questions, there a number of things that may be worth considering. Here are a few of them:

Ownership can determine usage
As the anecdote above demonstrates, both policies about device usage, and the actual usage of the devices in practice, can follow pretty directly as consequences of decisions made about device ownership. For this reason, it is important to how the ownership model(s) in place related to education devices might impact how the devices will (or won’t) be used.

Ownership models
There are four primary educational device ownership models prominently found in education systems around the world.

1. Government buys, government owns
This model is pretty easy to understand. A government buys devices for use in government schools. Just like it does when purchasing desks or chalkboards or soccer balls, these remain the property of government. Under such schemes, one part of the system may buy the devices and transfer the ownership of the devices to another part. For example, a central ministry of education procurement office buys the devices and ownership is assigned to a regional educational authority (like a district education office) or to an individual school.

One thing that some countries are finding is that their existing inventory rules and procedures related to government-owned equipment can be challenged buy large scale purchases of ICT devices. For example, laptops could be sourced and delivered regionally. However, for the devices to be officially entered onto the government’s books, they need to be physically processed through one physical central facility. In one case that I know about, a central government institution approached the ministry of education *after* tens of thousands of devices had been delivered to schools and said essentially, You know, all of these devices need to be sent to our warehouse to be processed as per government regulations. Once we are done with them, you are free to return them to the schools. The ministry responded by noting that there was no need to do this physically, as they could track all of these devices remotely over the Internet. That is great that you can do that, came the response, but rules are rules, we need to physically check that these devices indeed exist, so please send them all to us. (Needless to say, this was a bit of a problem.)

2. Government buys, user (teacher, student) owns
This model is also conceptually (if not always legally or administratively) straightforward: Government buys the devices and simply gives them to (e.g.) students. Where this occurs, it is important that there be some coordinated mechanism by which these devices can be repaired and replaced, as might be necessary (and required under the terms of warranties or other arrangements).

3. User buys, user owns
In a number of places, governments have decided that ICT use in education is important, but that government itself should not be procuring PCs, laptops or tablets. In a number of wealthy countries, for example, education systems have been exploring how students and teachers, most of whom have their own devices already, can simply use their personal laptops and tablets, freeing government to invest money in other ways. (This is referred to as ‘bring your own technology/device’ or BYOT/BYOD.) In both rich and poor countries, various schemes to promote device ownership in the education sector have been introduced (sometimes these are means-tested, e.g.  to qualify a family needs to be below a certain income level; sometimes they are merit-based, e.g. students who get high marks qualify).  One common way to promote device ownership is to establish a special financing facility whereby (for example) teachers get low or no interest loans to enable them to buy laptops. Linking loans, and the repayment of these loans, to the existing payroll system is one way to reduce some of the administrative burden for individual teachers.  Under this model, it can be quite important for there to be a common understanding about how such devices can be used on school premises, as well as when used at home to access official government educational resources. Some countries where the personal ownership of computing devices in society is quite low may say that issues related to BYOT/BYOD are not (yet) relevant to them, and will not be relevant for many years to come. This may well be the case … although in such circumstances it is worth considering that fact that increasing number of teachers and students may be bringing mobile phones to school ….

4. Leasing
When talking with countries that have already decided to buy huge numbers of computing devices for use in their schools, one of the first questions I ask them is: Why do you want to buy them? Have you considered leasing them instead? There are a number of reasons why leasing might be a good option for education systems. It can provide greater incentive for vendors to honor their maintenance contracts (given that, at the end of the lease, the equipment will be returned to them). Where multi-year device roll-outs are envisioned, leasing can result in education systems getting automatic upgrades on the specifications for the devices in later years, as it can be easier for vendors simply to supply devices that are currently available in the market, which often exceed the specs defined in the original tender documents. It is of course important to note that, in most middle and low income countries, markets for the leasing of ICT equipment are often quite underdeveloped (and in fact may not exist at all for a variety of historical, business, legal and regulatory reasons). In such cases, where an education system is considering what may well be the single biggest procurement of ICT equipment in a country’s history, it may be worth considering: Might there be an opportunity to create such a market?

As expensive as it may be to buy a lot of devices for use in schools, the costs of supporting these devices -- and keeping them working! -- can be quite considerable as well.  (To increase the chances that such investments will ‘pay off’, however that may be defined, investments in lots of other things like teacher training and quality digital learning resources, may well need to occur too!) Maintenance contracts and service level agreements are therefore of critical importance.  In such matters (as with leasing arrangements), it is typically the case that vendors have much more related knowledge, experience and expertise than education officials. This information asymmetry is especially pronounced where education systems are doing this sort of thing for the first time; while vendors tend to be very well informed about these sorts of issues in other sectors, and in other countries, a ministry of education may be a relative newcomer to them.

Acceptable Use Policies
One *very* useful  tool  for education systems or schools that are rolling out new educational technology initiatives is to have a document that clearly articulates the expectations around the use of ICT devices (as well as the content on the devices, and the content and information services that the devices can access). In many education systems, such acceptable use policies (AUPs) are included in a document that is signed by students (and their parents) or (in the case of teacher devices) teachers outlining what can be done with the devices, the responsibilities of various parties involved (e.g. the government, the school, the teacher, the student, the student’s family, vendors) and the consequences if these policies are not followed.  Those who have never drafted acceptable use policies of this sort are in luck: There are literally hundreds of examples of AUPs that can be found with a quick Internet search. Developing such policies is increasingly made more complicated by the use of non-school devices for educational purposes (e.g. a student uses a family computer at home to access a national education portal, a teacher contacts a student outside of school via email or social media, someone brings a personal device onto a school network, etc.).

Making decisions about device ownership and usage
One lesson that many education systems have learned the hard way is that, when decisions are being made about the ownership and use of ICT devices, it is best not to leave such decisions solely to the ICT folks. The technical people should be part of the decision making process, of course, as there are important technical issues that need to be considered. If, however, you want to ensure that the equipment is used in ways that support teaching and learning (which is presumably the whole point), you need to have the pedagogical folks (supported by people represented important administrative perspectives and realities) involved in prominent ways in the decision making process as well.

It is one thing to make well-considered decisions about issues related to the ownership and use of ICT equipment in schools -- and by teachers and students outside of school. No matter how good such decisions may be, and how good the related policies may be, if these decisions and policies are not communicated to the various stakeholders involved, serious misunderstandings can result that can impact how the devices are used. It’s not only about who owns what, but also about who thinks they own what (and what rights and responsibilities may follow as a result). Parents may be confused by the fact that they are responsible for paying for their children’s textbooks (or school uniforms, or other basic school supplies), but at the same time their children get a free tablet computing device. Schools may be surprised to learn that they own the desks that the government buys for them, but not the laptops. Vendors may be ‘on the hook’ if equipment breaks and so may tell schools things that are contrary to policies that have been agreed upon at higher levels. In such environments, confusion about who makes decisions about whether or not students can take ‘their’ laptops home or not, about what they can (and cannot do) with ‘their’ tablets (can they surf the Internet?), is not only understandable, but in many cases to be expected.  Establishing, supporting and maintaining various channels of related communication can therefore be important. In addition to sending various types of official communication through formal channels within the education system, AUPs can help with some of this; so can the mass media.

It is said that a tool is only as good as the person using it. This is undoubtedly true. It is also true that a tool’s usefulness is a function of how people are permitted and able to use it. However an education system rolling out large numbers of PCs, laptops or tablets across its schools may decide to answer basic questions about the ownership of these devices, it is important to note that these decisions can have a profound impact on how such equipment is actually used. Given the large amounts of money that are being devoted to 1-to-1 educational computing activities around the world, and the great potential that the use of such devices can have in improving teaching and learning practices and opportunities, it can be a real shame when such decisions are entered into lightly, or made incompletely – or left to people whose interests are not well aligned with those of teachers and students.

You may also be interested in the following EduTech blog posts:
[-] Textbooks of the future: Will you be buying a product ... or a service?
[-] Big educational laptop and tablet projects -- Ten countries to learn from 
[-] The Maine thing about 1-to-1 computing
[-] Next steps for Uruguay's Plan Ceibal

Note: The image of smiling girl used at the top of this blog post (“yes, that’s right, that new tablet is mine, all mine! (or is it?)”) comes from the Wikipedian Wilfredor (via Wikimedia Commons), who has put it in the public domain.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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