Why L.A.'s iPad Rollout Was Doomed

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By Anya Kamenetz, The Hechinger Report

Scarcely a month ago, on August 27, the Los Angeles County Unified School District placed the first iPads in students’ hands at the outset of a $1 billion plan to give one to every single student in the nation’s second largest public school district ($500 million for devices, plus an additional $500 million for internet infrastructure upgrades, raised through construction bonds).

The project is now being resoundingly panned, as reports surfaced quickly of high school students going around the security software on the iPads to surf for non-approved content. The district has called a halt to students bringing iPads home amid disputes over who will be held responsible for loss or damage–parents or taxpayers.

On Friday I spoke to two LAUSD contractors who have first-hand knowledge of the rollout. They agreed to give an insiders’ view of the controversy on background. There’s an incredible litany of problems here that reads like a primer on what NOT to do with a major deployment of technology in a school district.

1. The Rush

Problem number one, from these contractors’ perspective, was the timeline. The iPad idea first surfaced in November as a proposal to spend $17 million in bond money coming to the district. There was a small pilot in the spring–not enough, says Contractor #1. “From an IT and security standpoint, it would be tough to pilot something in just a few months, let alone start phase I. I have a hard time believing that people in the district didn’t raise red flags to say, are you sure we’re doing this the best way possible?”

2. Training and Professional Development

The second big issue was a lack of training, professional development, and overall, a failure to recognize the human resource needs created by a big device rollout like this one. “Teachers were not trained in the system to manage the devices. Nobody at the school was trained. A couple people from the district that came out to sort of help and they had somebody at the school who was the de facto tech person, teaching teachers how to use it after it had been deployed,” says Contractor #1. Contractor #2 added: “The ELA (English) teachers got a 40 minute training, because they were responsible for giving them out. I don’t think any of the other teachers were trained on the mobile device management system.” Part of the reason that students found it so easy to turn off the security controls to surf the Web and access sites like Facebook, YouTube and Pandora might be that many teachers were unfamiliar with how the controls worked.

3. School to Home and Back

Taking school-issued devices home has pedagogical justifications, for homework, extra practice time, and making stronger connections between school and home. But there are some practical and theoretical objections to this idea.

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During the pilot, Contractor #1 says, students weren’t allowed to take the iPads home. When they started going home, teachers quickly discovered that checking the devices out at the end of the day, and checking them back in in the morning, used up precious classroom time. Also, said contractor #2, “If kids didn’t want to do the work, they would come late purposely and not get an iPad. So in some classes, half the kids had them and half the kids didn’t, they were just sitting with their heads on the desk.” Parents, meanwhile, don’t want to be held liable for the loss, breakage or theft of the devices.

Contractor #1 had a different, more personal objection to the idea of students using a single device for work and home. “Being in IT, my professional device is separate from what I use at home. My daughter is five years old. She’s not old enough to understand that there’s a difference between your home life and school life and what’s acceptable in each place. Until she can segment that, I don’t want her being held responsible for any mistakes.”

4. Why iPads?

Los Angeles is paying a reported $678 apiece for these Apple iPads, higher than retail, although the price does include some educational software. That compares to as low as $250, retail, for a budget laptop. iPads don’t have a reputation as durable machines, and notably, they don’t have keyboards. “From the beginning I said, 'Are they going to type at all? Is this not a skill? Are they going to require a keyboard?'” said Contractor #1. Sure enough, just after Labor Day, the school district announced that they may be spending up to an additional $38 million on wireless keyboard accessories.