Three Lessons from Amplify’s Melted Charger

Three Lessons from Amplify’s Melted Charger


What follows is an example of real-time learning. Please read carefully. There will be a quiz at the end.

Last Friday, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina “suspended the use of Amplify tablets, cases, keyboards and chargers, effective immediately.” Middle school students in Guilford County have been among the first official customers of Amplify, the News Corp. subsidiary that is building a tablet-based curriculum program. Guilford county paid over $16.8 million (of a $30 million Race-To-The-Top grant) to buy the tablets to personalize learning.

The shutdown came after a student reported on Oct. 2 that a charger overheated while plugged in at home, partly melting its plastic case. "While a certain amount of technology issues are expected during major roll-outs, GCS felt the safety concern required immediate attention," noted the district’s press release.

The statement also noted that the superintendent has been unhappy that about 1,500 devices (of 15,000 distributed) have wound up with cracked screens; 2,000 apparently have faulty cases. That 10% breakage rate is hefty. According to Amplify, the usual broken screen rate is about 1.9%. The district press released noted that on Oct. 3, “Amplify executives informed GCS officials that the screens that were installed were not the more damage-resistant screens that Amplify thought had been installed, and that GCS had requested.”

The district suspended use of the tablets on Oct. 4.

Amplify says it’s asked the device and charger manufacturer, ASUS, to send engineers to North Carolina to investigate. ASUS asserts that the meltdown is the first report of its kind among 500,000 chargers. One such problem is one too many, however, noted Amplify spokesman Justin Hamilton: "Nothing comes before the safety of our students, teachers, and their families."

While ASUS, Amplify and the district try to sort out both why the charger melted and why so many tablet screens are cracked, teachers and students are adapting. Instead of doing homework or taking attendence via screens, kids and teachers are back to paper and pens.

So who’s learning what?

Technology--particularly new technology--breaks with irritating regularity. An electric car, the Tesla, recently caught fire when a metal plate punched a hole in its battery. In 2006, Dell recalled 2.7 million faulty laptop battery packs because of fire concerns. The list goes on. Should schools expect anything different?

Lesson number one: School districts that employ new technology should expect technology problems.

That said, a spotty track record is no excuse. Vendors should take back flawed--and dangerous--products. Districts should monitor how the technology is holding up. When Guilford managers saw that their schools’ breakage record was five times greater than what Amplify describes as “average,” they should have been on the phone with the company asking what was wrong.

In a written comment, Amplify’s Hamilton observed that the breakage statistics were unevenly distributed through Guilford schools. "Is it because there is something about the tablet at those schools that no other school in the country is experiencing?” Hamilton added. “Or is there something different about the way students in those handful of schools are handling the tablets?"

Perhaps. But at the end of the day, they’re the customers. Great product design is all about delivering what the customer needs. The Army and traveling sales reps get ruggedized laptops. (Forbes tried feeding this one to a tiger.) Middle school students probably deserve something just as sturdy.

Lesson number two: Teachers and students are customers. Important ones. Districts should hold vendors accountable for delivering good quality products--or work with them to figure out what’s wrong and demand the products get fixed.

Finally, given that technology does break and that districts will request changes or need fixes, what back up plans are in place? “We recognize that suspending the program on short notice is going to be disruptive to students, staff and parents, and for that we sincerely apologize,” said District Superintendent, Maurice O. “Mo” Green in a statement.

Unfortunately, teachers and students too often bear the cost of the confusion. Even the local car dealer has a loaner car when you bring yours to the shop.

Lesson number three: Districts need to keep student learning on the top of the agenda. Given that there will be snafus, what plans are in place so that teachers aren’t scrambling to jury-rig solutions and students aren’t at loose ends?

Of course, that could be the final lesson: namely, that what we’re really teaching our kids is resiliency. Improvisation. Figuring out how to make do when plans go astray.

And yes, here’s the quiz: Which of these lessons matters most? Please discuss!

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