Providing inner-city students with portable computers can make them attractive targets for crime.
That's the problem that Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials faced as they worked to improve technology access for the California district's 40,000 students.
Fortunately for Oakland and other districts both urban and suburban, effective theft-deterrence solutions — including physical etchings, tracking software and insurance — abound. "While commercial enterprises generally concern themselves more with the loss of data, for educational enterprises, the biggest risk of loss is the device itself," says James Quin, lead research analyst for Ontario-based Info-Tech Research Group.
Although device loss was a concern in Oakland, the devastating consequences of inadvertently creating crime victims loomed even larger. "We didn't want our kids to suffer from an attack, or even live in fear of an attack, just because they were carrying a computer back and forth to school," explains Ann Kruze, a district instructional technologist.
This realization inspired OUSD leaders to focus equally on safeguarding students and reducing their institutional risk: If devices issued to students don't disappear in the first place, they don't need to be located or replaced.
After considering several options, district officials decided etchings would most effectively protect the computers and the students who would be carrying them. But not just any etching would do. "In the past, one of our staff members hand-etched a small and unobtrusive maintenance tag on the bottom cover of [staff-issued] laptops," Kruze explains. "However, such etchings were too inconspicuous and easy for criminals to alter with a rotary hand tool."
So instead, the district developed an instantly recognizable imprint for its computers that makes their ownership readily known. The design, which spans nearly two-thirds of each device's lid, features the district's name and logo.
With the design established, district officials next considered how to imprint it. They looked into buying an etching device, Kruze says, but quickly realized such a purchase wasn't cost-effective.
District officials happened to mention their predicament to their CDW•G account manager, through whom they were purchasing netbooks for select students as a pilot program for the 2010–2011 school year. From this conversation they learned about the professional etching services the company offers. Kruze and her colleagues realized they'd found their solution.
"We simply provided the CDW•G team with a JPEG of the design," she recalls, "and it took only a couple of days for them to do a great job of imprinting our devices."
When the new school year began, OUSD issued 260 etched HP netbooks to Madison Middle School, one of 16 middle schools in the 93-school district. All 16 classrooms at Madison received a set of netbooks for students to share. Over the course of the netbook pilot, "we had no problems with student safety or with any of the netbooks disappearing," Kruze says.
Given that success, this year OUSD developed a one-to-one loan program (thanks to grants and partnerships) for two other middle school sites. The district also added a funding recognition component by incorporating the names of nonprofit partners into the etchings. "Funders don't know [about it] in advance, so it's not a naming rights offering," Kruze stresses. "It's just an excellent way to [unobtrusively] acknowledge our nonprofit partners."
According to Kruze, the district will continue rolling out etched devices to other schools, as funding permits. "We're working to develop the 21st century skills that are so necessary for college and career," she says. "Giving our kids access to netbooks is a big part of that."
Nearly 3,000 miles away, Brick Township Public Schools faces its own portable-device challenges. For this district of 11,000 students in Brick, N.J., efficiently meeting auditing mandates and preventing device theft go hand in hand.
"We purchased laptops with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds," explains Leonard M. Niebo, the district's director of information technology. "Anything purchased with federal funds must be audited and reported on. Even for special-education students who don't come into a district building, we needed to be able to locate and recover their devices at any time."
Niebo found his solution in Absolute Software's Computrace program, which is embedded into a computing device's BIOS software before it leaves the manufacturer's warehouse. "Since the protection is at the CPU level, a thief swapping out a hard drive doesn't impact the safeguards," Niebo says.
On the reporting side, Computrace makes it a snap to audit the district's approximately 750 mobile devices, which include notebooks, netbooks, tablets and MP3 players. "During an audit, we run a report and hand it to the auditors, and they walk out the door," Niebo says. "If we kept records on a spreadsheet, our information would only be accurate at the moment we created the report."
Computrace also allows IT managers to assign devices to groups, which Brick Township uses to account for different funding entities. "We have one group of devices funded by three different local and federal sources," Niebo notes. "If any one of [these sources] requests a report, I can tell how many devices we have, where they are and even whether they're currently turned on or not."
Photo: Robert Houser
In addition, the district uses Computrace's analytics to help address citizen concerns. "When some district residents questioned whether principals needed laptops, we showed them hard facts on where the laptops were located and how frequently the devices accessed the district network," Niebo recalls.
For theft deterrence, Brick Township leverages Computrace's "geofencing" feature. Although the option can be configured in numerous ways, Niebo and his team elected to disable any district-owned devices that exit the state of New Jersey without prior authorization. "A message with our tech support number appears on the device's screen," he explains. "If we receive a call from a staff member with a legitimate reason for taking a device outside the established boundaries, we go into the Computrace portal and enable roaming."
Geofencing not only prevents theft, it also improves user respectfulness. "People take better care of our devices," Niebo says. "We get them back in better condition than we would otherwise."
Insurance policies not only help schools protect against device theft, they also provide a safety net against accidental damage. Such has been the case for the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn.
The pre-K–12 all-boys school has operated a one-to-one notebook program for students in grades nine through 12 for a decade now. In that time, Brunswick's IT department has discovered that mobile devices are more likely to be damaged than stolen.
So, to protect its entire fleet from any type of harm, the school regularly purchases two-year insurance plans for its entire fleet from Safeware. The company, based
in Columbus, Ohio, provides comprehensive policies and extended service plans for technology products, covering everything from accidental damage to burglary and vandalism.
"Current statistics show that 28.6 percent of all student laptops have been [sent] to Safeware at least once," says Director of Technology Sunil Gupta. "On almost a daily basis, we see cracked screens or chassis caused by the laptop being dropped. Or there's liquid spill damage that fries the logic board or the hard drive."
For just $100 per incident, which Brunswick bills to parents, Safeware covers all device repairs or replacements. "This saves us an enormous amount of money that we would otherwise spend on ad-hoc repairs that aren't covered under a manufacturer's warranty," Gupta says.
Only two school-owned devices have been stolen in the past two years, he adds, and Safeware covered both.
Educators and experts offer the following sage advice for successfully implementing three common theft-deterrence strategies:
Etchings: For a smooth deployment, Ann Kruze, an instructional technologist for California's Oakland Unified School District, suggests getting board approval for an etching program early in the process.
"Once you gain approval, keep your etching design simple so ownership is clear," Kruze says. "Also, make it big to ensure the etching is easily recognized and difficult to alter. And order early to ensure your vendor has plenty of time to get it done."
Tracking software: Longtime Computrace user Leonard M. Niebo, director of information technology for Brick Township Public Schools in New Jersey, believes it's important to be forthright about your deployment. "We require users to sign a contract for a mobile device," he explains. "In that document, we use big, bold letters to inform users that the device contains software that can track the equipment based on geolocation."
James Quin, lead research analyst for Info-Tech Research Group, says savvy adopters look for streamlined management function. "Solutions that can be remotely administered or administered by a central console offer the most powerful management capabilities," he explains.
Insurance: Follow common-sense best practices, says Sunil Gupta, director of technology at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn. "Take time to thoroughly vet vendors, shop around and read the fine print," he says. "Also, make sure to involve other constituents in a pilot project before committing."