Updated 11:40 p.m. Friday
GREENSBORO — A malfunctioning charger triggered the decision Friday to suspend the use of 15,000 computer tablets at Guilford County middle schools in a setback for the district’s $30 million Race To the Top experiment in digital learning.
Teachers and administrators at 18 schools involved in the program collected the tablets, keyboards, protective cases and chargers for temporary storage at each school until a solution is worked out, Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green said.
Green said he made the decision after a charger overheated and partially melted while in use at a student’s home. He made the move because of the potential safety threat and because it was the latest in a series of issues with the tablets, Green said.
“We recognize that suspending the program on short notice is going to be disruptive to students, staff and parents,” Green said, and apologized for the inconvenience. “My decision was made out of an abundance of caution, and I decided to err on the side of safety.”
Other problems with the tablets included broken screens on about 1,500 tablets and additional complaints of about 175 broken or damaged chargers, school officials said.
Users also reported problems with about 2,000 protective cases designed to shield the electronic devices from rough handling.
School officials also learned Thursday that the tablets were not equipped with special, break-resistant “Gorilla Glass” screens as they had specified.
The leased tablets are valued at $199 apiece, school officials said.
Both Green and a spokesman for Amplify Education Inc., the district’s contractor, left it unclear what happens next, how quickly, and whether the tablets eventually might be shipped back to the manufacturer for modification or replacement.
Parents reacted warily to Green’s decision; several said in interviews Friday that they and their children experienced glitches.
Magen Eller said her daughter Abby has not had a tablet for use in her classes at Allen Middle School for about a month. The screen initially cracked after another student bumped Abby’s desk and the tablet fell to the floor, but then the screen shattered in a second mishap, Eller said.
At that time, the tablets had an ineffective silicone shell while the district waited for Amplify to send the stronger protective cases the tablets should have had from the beginning, she said.
“I was really surprised Guilford County Schools sent home a tablet with that flimsy little thing,” Eller said.
Parent Linda Mozell said her daughter and other students at Southeast Middle School had repeated problems connecting to the Internet with their tablets. And even though her daughter got one of the “hard shell” protective cases, that caused its own set of problems, she said.
The keyboard’s hard-shell case kept rubbing against the tablet screen in a way that could scar it, she said. In addition, the cord connecting the tablet and keyboard broke easily, the stylus was too big for easy use, and the equipment came home without a user’s manual.
“I was not pleased with the resources on the tablet,” Mozell said.
Guilford won the $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in December, one of 16 national Race to the Top winners. The district’s plan called for nearly 17,000 students in 24 middle schools to receive tablets over the next three years.
Amplify recommended Guilford County Schools stop using the tablets temporarily after learning of the overheated, disfigured charger, Green said.
The damage occurred after a student charged the tablet at home overnight, school officials said. But the charger belonging to that student’s sibling, also a middle school student with one of the tablets, worked fine while plugged into an outlet at the same household, they said.
ASUS, the company that makes the charger, told Amplify officials that the local incident is the only such malfunction it knows of among 500,000 chargers of that type distributed worldwide, Amplify spokesman Justin Hamilton said. “We’re working to resolve this as fast as possible so we can get the program back up and running,” he said.
ASUS representatives told Amplify recently there’s no technical or safety reason the tablets can’t be recharged overnight at home, he said.
He added that Amplify has six other school districts around the nation using similar charging systems. Amplify advised them also to stop using the ASUS charger until the uncertainty is resolved.
“One instance is too many,” Hamilton said. “Nothing comes before the safety of our students, teachers and their families.”
Staff Writer Marquita Brown contributed to this report.
Update: 1:30 p.m.
GREENSBORO −"Out of an abundance of caution, we sent notice to Guilford County School officials last night requesting that Amplify Tablet users in Guilford cease all further use of the ASUS charger until we can determine the cause of the single reported malfunction." Guilford County Schools Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green announced that the use of tablets in the schools has been temporarily suspended.
More details below.
Updated 9:33 a.m.
GREENSBORO − Guilford County Schools has immediately suspended its Amplify tablet program at the 18 middle schools that use them.
Teachers and administrators at 18 schools began collecting them this morning to be secured at least temporarily at each school, Guilford Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green said today.
Green made the decision to suspend use of the tablets after a series of technical and breakage problems, he said. The last straw came with the recent overheating and partial melting of a charging device that a student used to replenish his portable computer's power supply, Green said.
"My decision was made out of an abundance of caution and I decided to err on the side of safety," Green said at a late-morning press conference.
Ten percent, or about 1,500, of the 15,000 tablets have been returned to the company for broken screens.
The overheated, partly melted charger was the latest of many problems with that component as well. About 175 chargers have been turned in with other problems such as bent connecting prongs and loose casings around the connector, said Cynthia Shah-Khan, spokeswoman with Guilford County Schools.
Officials also learned only Thursday that the computers were not equipped with the break-resistant screen both they and their contractor, Amplify Education Inc., thought had been added by the manufacturer in line with school-system specifications.
Students were notified Friday to return the tablets, chargers and cases to the schools. Shah-Khan said students should have the items with them. Although students are allowed to take the tablets home with them, they are supposed to bring them back to school every day.
Green said school officials were not sure what the next step will be or whether the tablets will have to be returned to Amplify and its contractor for replacement or some kind of retrofit.
An Amplify spokesman wrote in an email to the News & Record that the company is trying to determine if the overheated charger was caused by an electrical problem in the student's home or because of a manufacturing defect.
Justin Hamilton, the company's senior vice president of corporate communications, wrote:
"While the problem occurred with only one of the more than 20,000 ASUS chargers distributed to teachers and students across the country, one instance is too many. Nothing comes before the safety of our students, teachers and their families.
"Out of an abundance of caution, we sent notice to Guilford County School officials last night requesting that Amplify Tablet users in Guilford cease all further use of the ASUS charger until we can determine the cause of the single reported malfunction."
Shah-Khan said the school system is working with Amplify to come up with a solution.
"We've been in contact with Amplify throughout the process," she said.
The district signed a contract with Amplify Access in May to lease the new tablets and began receiving them over the summer.
The tablets were a key ingredient in the school district's "one-to-one" learning initiative that aims to increase communication between teachers and students. Guilford was one of 16 school systems nationwide to qualify for federal, "Race to the Top" money for the program.
The district received a total of $35 million in grants for the initiative.
Green said he plans to stay in close contact with federal officials as district officials and Amplify sort out the problems.
"It's certainly disappointing," Green said of bringing an abrupt halt to tablet usage. "I was excited when we got the grant, one of 16 grantees across the nation to get the grant."
The school system contracted with Amplify to have protective cases* over the tablets, Shah-Khan said.
The News & Record previously reported that Amplify replaced 220 tablets at their expense because the hard cases were not ready. The school system returned about 80 defective tablets to Amplify.
The tablets were in thin, silicone cases, rather than the hard cases they should be in.
Staff writer Taft Wireback contributed to this report.
Posted at 9:05 a.m.
GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools is suspending the use of its Amplify tablets, cases, keyboards and chargers, effective immediately, according to a letter sent home to parents.
About 10 percent of the district's 15,000 devices have been returned to Amplify due to broken screens, according to the letter.
We will update this when more information is available.