Stacked in towers scattered across a pair of rooms right outside Denver’s West High School, at least 8,000 Chromebooks wait their turn to be powered back to life. Some are covered with stickers — pops of color in the shapes of sharks, octopi, dogs wearing sunglasses and SpongeBob SquarePants, stuck on by students who wanted to set their basic black computer apart.
The Chromebooks will find their way back to a Denver school once they have been cleaned and repaired. But elsewhere, many others will simply be taken out of circulation and scrapped — part of what a recent report calls “Chromebook churn,” a costly and environmentally harmful consequence of short-lived devices.
Denver Public Schools is one of many districts across Colorado and the country eyeing the prospect of Chromebook churn in a few years after rushing at the start of the pandemic to equip every student with a device they could use for classwork at home. More than three years later, some of the devices across Colorado schools are closing in on their last days. Soon, their glowing screens will turn dark and their clacking keyboards will go silent. For good.
That’s because Chromebooks, basic laptops programmed by Google that are primarily used for connecting to the Internet and running simple programs, have a notably shorter lifespan than other devices. Each is hardwired with a so-called “death date,” a predetermined date when they can no longer carry out operating system updates and consequently stop enabling students to navigate to secure websites even as the devices themselves still function. All of Google’s devices will expire in an average of four years, according to a recent report focused on the impacts of technology turnover by nonprofit advocacy organization CoPIRG.
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An arsenal of Chromebooks that can’t keep up with new software or that shut students out from the websites they rely on will essentially become obsolete, leading to both significant costs for districts and environmental hazards — issues highlighted in the April report.
“Really no school should have to throw away a laptop that still works just because it’s reached its expiration date,” said Alex Simon, a public health advocate for CoPIRG. “It just doesn’t make any sense for the school or for the environment, especially when just by extending the lifespan or extending this automatic update expiration date, students could be using the laptops for who knows how much longer? But hopefully several years longer.”
The problem comes as most school districts in the state issue a device to every student. The move toward Chromebooks accelerated in spring 2020 as the pandemic shuttered in-person learning, with 90% of middle and high schools and 84% of elementary schools covering devices for all students, according to a March 2021 Education Week survey of school leaders cited in the report.
Schools were a major part of why Chromebook sales soared in the last quarter of 2020, 287% higher than in 2019, the report notes.
The issue is compounded by the meager options school districts have when it comes to repairing Chromebooks. Most manufacturers of the devices don’t sell new parts, Simon said.
Spare parts are scarce and as a result very expensive, she said. “So what happens is it becomes more expensive to fix a Chromebook … not because the part itself is expensive, just because it’s in short supply and hard to get.”
That adds significantly to already high technology costs for schools, which Simon said are forced “to buy new technology more frequently than necessary.” The report estimates that if the operation cycle of a Chromebook was doubled to eight years for the more than 850,000 public school students in Colorado, the state would save an estimated $32 million, not factoring in additional maintenance costs.
The most cost-effective way to help kids learn through technology
Another consequence of short life cycles and few extra parts: rows and rows of devices strewn in district buildings for technicians to tackle one at a time. DPS technicians are currently wading through about 500 of the thousands of Chromebooks surrounding their desks and walling them off from each other.
Some of those Chromebooks were part of a districtwide scramble at the start of the pandemic to make sure every student had a device for remote learning, including elementary schoolers. A 2020 bond funded Chromebooks for all students in district-managed middle and high schools, and once the pandemic hit, DPS expanded its technology supply to kids in kindergarten through fifth grade by handing down older Chromebooks to those students and buying more Lenovo Chromebook devices with federal COVID relief dollars, according to Matt Dodge, senior manager of MyTech, the district’s student technology program, and hardware repair for the Department of Technology Services.
With a collection of about 78,000 Chromebooks for both students and staff, DPS has invested more than $18.3 million in Chromebooks since 2021, about half using bond money and the rest from federal COVID relief funds, according to figures the district provided.
Dodge is a proponent of Chromebooks, which he described as affordable devices that meet the technology needs of classrooms.
“As technology continues to permeate education every day and beyond, if we don’t have the right kind of resources on hand to be able to support that accelerated growth and opportunity for students to learn, we’re going to quickly fall behind,” Dodge said.
He said he’d be hard-pressed to see the district reverting to not having Chromebooks in schools, “just because of how much curriculum has been integrated into these technological platforms.”
With the sheer size of DPS — whose enrollment totals more than 87,850 — the district must find the most cost-effective approach to deploying devices to all students, Dodge said. Chromebooks can run as low as $250 depending on the model and “are the more financially responsible way to go,” he said.
His team monitors the automatic expiration dates of Chromebook models across different manufacturers — which Google sometimes extends — while also purchasing four-year warranties for the devices because of all the damage they incur.
“My role is to get as much as we can out of these devices before we’re no longer able to have them on our network,” Dodge said, adding that Chromebooks that can’t receive security updates can pose threats to the district’s network.
And the ability to repair Chromebooks within the district using seven technicians and even high school interns is another big benefit of the devices, keeping DPS from having to ship broken devices out to other companies and wait for them to be returned.
“Within the district, we can shorten a lot of that back-and-forth and cut down on some of those other kind of environmental impacts from something like that,” Dodge said.
An environmental disaster in the making
The toll Chromebooks take on the environment can be disastrous, the report notes, with electronic waste accounting for less than 2% of the global waste stream by volume but fueling more than 70% of the waste stream’s toxic environmental effects.
Additionally, only one-third of electronic waste is “properly recycled,” the report states.
DPS sends its outdated Chromebooks to an electronics recycling vendor, after wiping all data. That vendor either recycles the devices or refreshes them and sells them at a reduced cost, Dodge said.
The district has a little breathing room before Chromebook churn comes on in full force, Dodge said. The devices they purchased during the pandemic will expire beginning in 2025 unless Google extends how long they can receive operating system updates. Still, his team is working device by device to keep as many as they can in classrooms and stay ahead of computer failures while also urging technology giants to lengthen their life cycles.
“I think it is the right move to keep pushing companies to extend the life as much as possible for these devices … as they continue to permeate every aspect of education,” Dodge said.