By: Brent D. Jackson
Brent Jackson is a Certified Microsoft IT Consultant with Innovative Data Technologies. I have actively been pursuing changes to the EVSC netbook program, but my requests have fallen on deaf ears. I have spoken with Vince Bertram, the School Board, Bosse High School, and the Courier & Press. There are some serious problems with the netbook program and the devices themselves. Below is a letter that I sent to the school board members and the Courier. To date there has been no reply. I believe that my concerns are valid and newsworthy.
The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation curriculum now requires netbook usage in the classroom environment. The EVSC has rolled out some 7800 little laptops (netbooks) for some grade & all high school students. The netbooks are rented at $35/semester ($70/yr) and are checked out concurrently with their books. Insurance can be purchased from a third party provider at $52/yr with a $25 deductible (first time claim). A Netbook User Agreement is sent home with the student that in so many words, says the usage of this netbook constitutes agreement to the rules found within. It is a statement of protection on behalf of the EVSC with no rights or privileges granted in consideration or favor of the end users.
Last years netbooks were found to be weak and arguably contained a common workmanship defect. The root of the problem in the netbooks was that a latch that is meant to hold on to the removable battery was easily broken on one side of the netbook. This problem, (if not fixed) then cascaded into the LCD screen being cracked in the right hand corner of the screen when a student opened the lid. The EVSC chose to keep these defective laptops in the field of service which in turn caused the $15 latch part replacement to a $200 LCD screen replacement. This would go against any return or replacement policy that HP has. The EVSC lawsuit against HP should be dismissed because of this principle alone.
This year, the EVSC has purchased 7800 Dell Latitude 2110’s. Even though this is a different species of a netbook, this does not alleviate many of the other problems with the EVSC netbook program that has gone unanswered. Vincent Bertram, the EVSC Superintendant believes that this program will close the gap on the”digital divide” between classes of people. This is an over presumptuous statement that mistakenly implies that sending a netbook home with the misfortunate students of Evansville who don’t already have a computer at home would for some reason or another have internet capabilities and make full use of the netbooks surfing/researching abilities. A student could very well find a Wifi Hot Spot somewhere in town, but it is unlikely and difficult for a student to find a hot spot which provides them a suitable study environment. Not to mention that many students are not allowed to stay out after dark. In reality, the EVSC has sent home a very expensive and fragile word processor for our students to use.
The EVSC also hopes to eliminate the textbook expenses someday. The perception that we will be phasing out textbooks in their entirety is a delusion. At no point in time will we cease to have a textbook or a publishing house vendor that sells media to the EVSC. Whether it is a paper or paperless textbook solution, there will still be cost involved for the copyrights or licensing of any certifiable scholastic reading materials for the students to use on their netbooks. The costs of paperback textbooks will never compare to the cost of the netbooks. Not to mention the additional power usage, technical and administrative support that is needed to keep these laptops in tip top shape. The EVSC signed a 3 million dollar contract last year with HP; and again signed another $3 million dollar contract with Dell this year. This has got to be the most expensive netbook program in the State, if not the country.
With that said, all of the Dell netbooks that were purchased this year have integrated cameras in them. I would agree that on the surface level this is an attractive feature; but this opens a lot of other doors for those who may prey on the students. A person who is familiar with a programming language (like Visual Basic or C++) could in fact write a program that could infect the other netbook computers at the EVSC that would then allow them to remotely activate and stream the captured camera video images to their computer at home. The current EVSC Computer Administrators could disable all network cameras by Group Policy at the server level, but if the Administrator password has been hacked, it may make no difference anyhow. The EVSC System Administrator password was hacked 12 times by students last year. If the administrator password is hacked, it renders the computers and the computer network the official playground of any savvy user. A person could wreak havoc on the systems at large. Including, but not limited to, the access of every computer or device that is joined to their Windows domain. With the security measures defeated, the servers, the netbooks and their vulnerabilities can be shared with other students for further multiplied manipulation. Parents should further consult with their child about the additional considerations and responsibilities when you have an integrated camera.
The EVSC always encourage parental involvement with the school system, but seemingly there are limitations to this relationship especially in retrospect. There has been no public discussion or open forum on the financial, physical, or most importantly the moral considerations of the netbook program. The EVSC Board Meeting minutes on the EVSC website have no mention of any netbook program prior to June 8th of 2009. No other notice was given prior to the netbook implementation 3 months later. It is inconsiderate and disrespectful to not only the parents, but the teachers too; slipping this netbook program in under the radar without any long term planning, discussion or respectable teacher/student/parent readiness considerations. It is interesting to note that it has been the EVSC’s policy to confiscate and reprimand student’s for cell phones, iPods, or other electronics including privately owned laptops (5136 – CELLULAR TELEPHONES AND ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION DEVICES). However the school issued netbooks seem to escape violations of this written and unchanged policy even though the netbook fits the criteria of this policy on their website.
In conclusion, the EVSC has indirectly told me and 15,000 EVSC parents (in so many words) that we are responsible for a fragile computer that will be given to our teenager; with a built in video camera; and we have no say or insight into the level of security, service or expectations in the netbook program whatsoever. We are further expected to pay for it through taxes and nearly doubled book rental fees. Any outcome, for better or worse, is going to be acceptable. And if the program is a failure, the EVSC will have no desire or ambition to share any contributing report as to why the previous netbook program has failed in its entirety and what changes have been made this year to assure us that this will not happen again. For all of the reasons stated formerly in this letter; it is in my opinion that the netbook program in its current state that the proper due diligence was ever performed to reveal all of the weaknesses in the netbook program. It does not meet the expectations of the EVSC nor the parents and it is definitely not in the best interest of educating our students or straddling the “digital divide” as we have been told. It is an inefficient program that not only cost money, but learning time as well. This has a direct and immediate effect on our student’s grade earning abilities and the program should be killed!