Device Protection | Feature

Making Mobile Devices Durable

Districts that have spent millions on 1-to-1 rollouts are protecting their investment with a variety of cases and covers.

With schools around the country — including major urban districts like Miami-Dade, Houston ISD and Los Angeles Unified — rolling out 1-to-1 initiatives, hundreds of thousands of kids (and their teachers) are handling new mobile devices. To those in the classroom, these are learning tools, but to school administrators, they are major investments that need to be protected. So while data security may grab the headlines, tech leaders are also engaged in the more mundane task of choosing cases and teaching best practices to provide physical security for their mobile devices. Here's how they're protecting against breakage, and what they're doing when accidents happen.

Taking Care of Tablets
In North Carolina's Rowan-Salisbury School System, approximately 20,000 students in 35 schools have access to roughly 15,000 iOS devices, thanks in large part to a grant from the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation. One elementary school, three middle schools and one high school have adopted 1-to-1 iPad programs for their students, as have the fifth grades in all 20 elementary schools, the science classrooms in all seven high schools, and the sixth grades in four middle schools.

The first mobile devices to arrive at the district in 2008 were iPod touches, which participating high school students were allowed to take home. Now that the iPod touches are being replaced with iPads, the district is planning to keep its devices in school. "You're looking at a $200 device going home versus a $500 device going home," said Phil Hardin, the district's director of instructional technology. "We are trying to do some restructuring to allow that. However, we do have circumstances now where they can be checked out to students for special situations to go home."

Part of that process involves ensuring that each tablet has a certain level of physical protection. With the plethora of cases in a saturated iPad accessory market, districts have a wide range of competitively priced options. Although it varies from building to building, the majority of iPads in the Rowan-Salisbury district have protective covers from Monoprice. The cases are priced in the $14 to $17 range. Hardin described the cases as having "a somewhat leather-like but rigid cover, but it allows you to fold it completely open," The back of the cases has an elastic band that students can slide their hands in. "If the teacher is walking around the classroom or the students get up to make a presentation," Hardin said, "they just quickly slide their hands, and the elastic band holds it pretty securely." Furthermore, the cover lets the iPads stand up at an angle. The school system's Exceptional Children's Department, which comprises students with special learning or physical needs, uses a more heavy-duty, rugged case from Otterbox.

Seth Kussmaul, a customer service specialist in the information technology services department of St. Charles Community Unit School District 303 in Illinois, assessed a variety of cases for the district's 3,000 iPads. These tablets are distributed among 13,000 students in 17 buildings, including an elementary school that has a 1-to-1 program in place.

Some of cases were too costly, while some didn't fit into the syncing carts; others simply were not protective enough, he said. The district initially settled on magnetic Apple Smart Covers, but after a higher-than-desired number of breakage incidents — particularly at the 1-to-1 school — the school system reevaluated its case selection and made the switch to Gumdrop. Recently, it has looked into cases from i-Blason to enhance efficiency.

Kussmaul explained, "We do an inventory with a bar code asset tag, and we didn't have a way to do that with the Gumdrop cases without modifying them — essentially disassembling and double-checking everything," Kussmaul explained. "It was the same for the libraries — when they checked the iPads out to students so they knew who had them, they had to disassemble them, find out which device it was, and associate that tablet with that student. This other company has a cut-out in the back of it, and that lets us put the bar code right there.  We can just scan it, which makes things a lot easier for our inventory and for student checkout at the building."

Two Cases for Every Laptop
iPads aren't the only devices that need protection. At New Jersey's Pascack Valley Regional High School District, every student and teacher has access to a brand-new MacBook Air. The school system began with another vendor with good software but terrible hardware, said Christopher A. DeNoia, the district's network administrator. "It was very flimsy and delicate, and in the hands of students, it didn't last very long," he said. "We ended up going back to the market and trying to figure out another vendor who would give us both hardware and software that would be capable for students. That's when we ended up getting the contract with Apple."

At the time of purchase, DeNoia asked for recommendations for a durable case, and he was immediately directed to Speck. The district uses a clear case that provides abrasion resistance and protection from dirt. Students are also issued another case, from Brenthaven, that is padded and reinforced on all sides. DeNoia said that because of this additional protection, if a laptop is dropped from desk height, it likely wouldn't be affected.

"Brenthaven is a company that we had history with," DeNoia said. "We went with them a couple models ago with our other computers. When we went back to them and told them we were getting new computers, we asked if they had anything to offer, and they said yes."

Kid-Proofing or Teacher-Proofing?
Despite every precaution, mobile devices are bound to suffer the occasional tumble, nick, screen break or coffee spill. Ann Dunkin, chief technology officer for Palo Alto Unified School District in California, which has 3,500 iPads distributed to students in grades K-12, has found that teachers and administrators — and not students — are mostly to blame for damage to the district's tablets. "We teach our kids to be really careful with them and not to bring any food or drink near them," she said.

Hardin agreed that teachers do more damage. "Most of our breakage comes from the adults," he said, adding that his district has a relatively low breakage rate when you take into consideration the sheer amount of devices it owns. "It typically is a screen break, and in most cases, it's an accidental drop, where the tablet or tablets fell out of their hands or slid out of the protective cases."

Not every school in the Rowan-Salisbury district has purchased cases for their iPads, and one might think that this lack of protection is particularly risky given that the devices are in the hands of elementary school students. However, Hardin said he recently visited a second-grade classroom that boasts a damage-free record with their iPads. "They've been reminded every day to use two hands, don't run and be careful, and they have absolutely no breakage. Second graders take a lot of ownership in the classroom, and that's what we see:  If that ownership piece of classroom management is there, the devices are maintained better."

What Happens When it Breaks?
While inspiring feelings of ownership can make students more careful with devices, so can establishing policies that clearly state the consequences of accidental — or deliberate — damage. At Palo Alto Unified, if a student accidentally breaks an iPad, then he or she gets one "free pass."  "We certainly have a written policy that says if they lose it, they break it, but we tend to give staff and students both one chance," Dunkin said. "After that, there are varying types of consequences. Our agreement with the students is: If they break it, they are to pay for the damage. If they can't afford it, they can work it off."

Palo Alto Unified School District's Ann Dunkin explains how her district deals with damaged iPads.

At St. Charles, students are only liable for damage that happens when they take a device home. "There's an agreement that the parents sign in order to be able to have their student take them home," Kussmaul said. "They are made aware of that up front before anything could go home. It's not a requirement, so they can opt out."

If a device's cover fails to do its job in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, the district has one last layer of protection: good warranty coverage. "Our purchasing standard is to automatically buy the Apple Care Extended Warranty for all of our devices for a total of two years' coverage," Hardin said, adding that if damage is determined not to be accidental, then the guilt party must pay the cost. According to Hardin, having Apple Care "makes the repair cost very reasonable as compared to not being covered. For around $49, you get two repairs, as opposed to paying a repair of typically $180 if a screen breaks."