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Aging Ed Tech End Up in the Landfill. Is There an Alternative?

What happens to the millions of devices schools use to aid learning when staff and students can no longer use them?

That’s a big question some districts are grappling with at a large scale for the first time as they plan to replace or upgrade aging technology used in and out of classrooms.

Laptops, tablets, and take-home internet hotspots are, of course, not new to schools. But the scale of their use has grown rapidly in recent years, fueled by the frenzied switch to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, most school districts have 1-to-1 technology, meaning every student has a school-issued learning device. Eighty-five percent of educators said their district has a device for each student at all grade levels in a 2022 survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center.

But the pace at which districts adopted the technology allowed for little time to prepare and plan, and many districts say they’re adjusting as they go to a challenge that’s grown to a much larger scale than in the past. With so many of the Chromebooks and other devices schools purchased in 2020 approaching the end of their useful lives, many districts are working on end-of-life planning for their technology, which can include budgeting for new devices, settling on the best replacements, and determining when to purchase them.

As districts make these plans, they also have to know how they are going to get rid of all those outdated devices in a responsible way.

There are some environmentally responsible disposal options for old devices, and choosing those can make a major difference in schools’ contributions to local waste streams, according to a school district technology director and a district sustainability director who were among the district leaders chosen as EdWeek’s 2024 Leaders to Learn From.

Electronic waste is a fast-growing segment of the waste stream worldwide, yet less than a quarter of the world’s e-waste in 2022 was recycled, according to a United Nations report.

“A lot of districts, including ours, are in the beginning stages of figuring this all out, but it’s really important work because it can have a big impact on the environment,” said LeeAnn Kittle, executive director of sustainability for the Denver school district.

To reduce e-waste in schools, use students to help repair and repurpose devices

Chromebooks are the most popular 1-to-1 devices in schools.

About 75 percent of educators who responded to a recent EdWeek Research Center survey conducted said Chromebooks are the primary devices their schools use. The nationally representative survey included 868 educators and was conducted from May 29 to June 19.

But those machines have a set date after which software support ends, meaning that laptops of a certain age will be denied automatic software updates, even if they’re still functioning, posing security concerns.

The devices’ lifespans are relatively short, often less than seven years, according to a recent report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund that examined how Chromebooks’ lifespans affect districts’ budgets. And machines can already be a couple years into that lifespan by the time students start using them.

To be sure, that lifespan could be lengthening. Google last year announced it will offer automatic software updates for Chromebooks released in 2021 and afterward for 10 years. Those with Chromebooks from before 2021 can opt into the extended updates. But the sheer quantity of Chromebooks in use in schools means many of those machines could be headed to landfills as they approach the end of their useful lives.

Some districts craft plans to purchase new devices in cycles rather than all at once, and find ways to maintain and repair devices that are salvageable. Some districts have even employed students to handle devices’ upkeep and repair, giving them an opportunity to learn hands-on skills and earn some money.

The Moore, Okla., district is doing just that, embedding tech repair into its career and technical education program.

The district offers students courses and internships in its IT department that involve repairing technology and breaking down devices to recycle reusable parts.

In the past year, a handful of students in the program, now in its second year, have repaired around 1,000 devices and provided hundreds of hours of customer support services to staff and families, said Jun Kim, director of technology for the district. The district has saved about $90,000 by recycling parts from broken, unfixable devices and repairing other devices that can be salvaged, he said.

“We can’t afford to hire enough staff to do that work,” Kim said. “We have students looking to go into that profession, so why not capitalize on that and give them training so they can go straight from high school to work if they want to?”

Districts should consider donating, selling older Chromebooks and other devices

But even the best cared-for devices will at some point need to be replaced or upgraded, Kittle said.

When that time comes, districts should first prioritize wiping the devices of personal information and data and donating or selling them if feasible, Kittle said.

As Kim’s district in Oklahoma has gone through routine processes of upgrading to newer devices, it has donated more than 1,500 older machines to nearby school districts. The district has also sold iPads to community members at significantly discounted prices.

“That giving back and repurposing as much as we can is part of our sustainability practices,” Kim said.

He added that all of the devices they sold or gave away were in good shape, but the district was upgrading them thanks to funding it received from a federal grant for technology enhancements.

Districts could partner with organizations or companies that specialize in breaking down the devices to recycle parts that can be repurposed if rehoming devices isn’t possible, Kittle said. That cuts down on how much material ends up in the landfill.

One popular route for districts that embraced student technology prior to the pandemic has been partnering with technology vendors that are better equipped to recycle or refurbish devices at a large scale. That can take pressure off districts, especially those without much IT capacity, to come up with solutions of their own.

“If we don’t do this correctly, we will be really increasing the amount of waste, which obviously impacts our environment,” Kittle said. “It’s environmentally responsible, but from an economic standpoint, as well, we want to make things last as long as possible so that money we’re saving can be money that is put back into the classroom in other ways.”

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