Repairs of digital learning devices impose heavy burden on local governments

Courtesy of School Keeper Insurance
A digital learning device with its screen cracked from falling onto the floor during a class at an elementary school

Broken digital learning devices are piling up at schools more than a year after all elementary and junior high school students began to receive the devices.

There has been a remarkable number of accidents, such as students dropping the devices onto the floor, and some local governments have had to pay millions of yen annually for repairs.

Going forward, local governments and parents may find themselves on the hook for costs necessary to regularly replace devices, and schools are being forced to take measures to cope with the problem.

40 broken in 4 months

A deputy principal of a municipal school in a Tokyo ward voiced his surprise at the breadth of the problem, saying, “I did not foresee so many devices getting broken.”

Digital learning devices are provided to the school’s about 650 students, and full-fledged use of the devices began in spring last year.

In the first year, about 60 devices were damaged. But this school year, about 40 were damaged just between April and July.

Most of the damage occurred from students dropping the devices at school or home, or hitting them against something.

In addition to textbooks, notebooks and other stationery, students now have to store their devices inside their desks.

“There is little vacant space inside students’ desks, and the devices often fall from their desks,” said a teacher in charge of a class of sixth-graders at a public school in Tokyo.

Though she has asked students to treat the devices with care as next year’s first graders will use the same ones, there has been no change in the number of students accidentally dropping the devices.

There are also students who have intentionally damaged the devices, though such cases are rare. In summer of last year, a fifth-grade elementary school student scratched off a device’s keyboard.

Parents’ burden

When digital learning devices were distributed to elementary and junior high school students up to the end of fiscal 2020, the central government provided subsidies of ¥45,000 per device. But the subsidies do not cover repair costs.

The city government of Kuki, Saitama Prefecture, where a total of about 11,000 devices are in use in elementary and junior high schools, earmarked about ¥2.6 million for repair costs for 75 devices in this fiscal year’s initial budget.

But in April, it was found that around 200 devices had been damaged, and the city government added about ¥7.7 million to the budget for repairs.

If the number of devices damaged or malfunctioning increases at the current pace, the annual cost to the city for repairing them could surge significantly.

Opinion is divided among local governments on whether to demand payment from parents for repairs of damaged devices.

A municipal elementary school in a Tokyo ward demanded parents of one student pay about ¥50,000 last year because the student lost a device.

But in another case where a student in a higher grade, who regularly exhibited erratic behavior, threw a device in a classroom and damaged it, the school chose not to seek compensation.

“We have no counterargument if we are told that the teacher should have been more careful,” said an official of the school.

In Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, there were about 100 cases of damaged learning devices in municipal schools from fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2021. The city government paid about ¥800,000 in repair costs.

In some cases where students intentionally damaged devices, the city government demanded their parents pay for the costs.

The city of Takasago, Hyogo Prefecture, tells students’ parents or guardians that it may demand compensation if students intentionally damage devices. But a city government official said, “This is to prevent cases where a single student damages several devices, and in general, the city government handles repair costs.”

Similarly, an official of the city government of Mino, Osaka Prefecture, said, “As a rule, the city government shoulders repair costs, so that parents and guardians will not think that they don’t want their children to use provided digital devices.”

Covered by insurance

An insurance service to cover these kinds of learning-device accidents has also appeared.

School Keeper Insurance, a Yokohama-based insurance agent, began selling insurance products for accidents involving schools’ digital learning devices in January 2021.

The insurance premium is usually about ¥1,100 a year per device, and mostly it is parents, often via parent-teacher associations, who are paying for the service.

So far, about 300 schools and local governments have insured some 50,000 devices, and the company has covered repair costs for about 700 devices.

“It seems to be significant in preventing friction between schools and parents,” said company President Yasunori Yamashita, referring to the service.

Shimpei Toyofuku, an associate professor of educational engineering at the International University of Japan who is an expert on device usage in schools, said: “It is unavoidable that parents should shoulder repair costs depending on the cause of the damage, but it is also necessary for local governments and schools to consult parents and decide on rules about how to divvy up costs. The central government also should not see introducing the devices as the end, and should present some level of policies or guidelines for how to handle damage and costs for replacing the devices.”

Mountainous replacement costs

In general, the digital devices being used will need to be replaced with new ones about every five years. But the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has not clarified its policy over who will shoulder the costs to replace the digital devices distributed to each student. Replacement costs will likely run into the hundreds of billions of yen.

In Kawasaki, the city government leased about 117,000 digital learning devices. The city government shouldered about ¥6 billion of the costs while the central government paid out nearly ¥3 billion.

The devices will need to be replaced with new ones when the contract expires at the end of fiscal 2025.

Though the local government worries about the costs, an official of the ministry said, “Nothing has been decided yet.”