Why L.A. Students Hacked Into iPads: District Is ‘Locking Us Out’

| September 27, 2013
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By Sam H. Sanders

Los Angeles Unified School District started issuing iPads to its students this school year, as part of a $30 million deal with Apple. The rollout is in the first of three phases, and ultimately, the goal is to distribute more than 600,000 devices.

But less than a week after getting their iPads, almost 200 of the districts’ high school students found a way to bypass software blocks on the devices that limit what websites the students can use.

Roosevelt High School in East LA has the most offenders. Earlier this week, Mayra Najera, a high school senior, told NPR that she hasn’t hacked her school-issued iPad just yet, but that some classmates have offered to do it for her.

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“They told me Friday, ‘I would do it for you because you’re my friend,’ ” she says. “They told me that!”

If you weren’t a friend, the hack would cost $2.

“They were charging people to do it. It was like a little black market,” Najera says.

The students are getting around software that lets school district officials know where the iPads are, and what the students are doing with them at all times. This software also lets the district block certain sites, such as social media favorites like Facebook.

The district’s chief information officer, Ronald Chandler, says he wasn’t really surprised that students bypassed blocks so quickly. He says that hacks happen at all levels, whether it’s secured parts of the federal government, or student iPads.

“So we talked to students, and we asked them, ‘Why did you do this?’ And in many cases, they said, ‘You guys are just locking us out of too much stuff.’ ”

He says, after talking with students, that the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad policy probably should be changed, allowing for some social media and music streaming sites.

“They were bound to fail,” says Renee Hobbs, who runs the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. She’s been a skeptic of the iPad program from the start. “Children are growing up today [with] the iPad used as a device for entertainment. So when the iPad comes into the classroom, then there’s a shift in everybody’s thinking.”

And sometimes that shift is hard for everybody. Hobbs says this isn’t the first time educators have tried to co-opt things that lots of people use for fun.

“Back in the 1930s, there was a big initiative to use radio in education,” says Hobbs. “It was the original distance education.” But, Hobbs says, that all fizzled out.

“Within a decade, we discovered that the commercial use of radio, for soap operas and music shows and game shows, actually eclipsed the educational use of radio. And the entertainment function is just so [dominant]. You can’t compete,” Hobbs says.

“You guys are just locking us out of too much stuff.”

Los Angeles Unified School District, for its part, says it’s addressing what it calls “a glitch” in the iPad software. The district told NPR that for now, the hackers won’t be punished. But home use of the iPads has been halted, indefinitely.

The rollout of the iPads might have to be delayed as officials reassess access policies. Right now, the program is still in Phase 1, with fewer than 15,000 iPads distributed. In November, the district is set to start moving into Phases 2 and 3 of the iPad program.

In light of the hacking scandal, Mayra Najera, the Roosevelt High School senior, isn’t sure she needs an iPad at all.

“It’s hard to tell,” she says. Najera says she doesn’t even do digital homework on her school-issued iPad. She takes care of that on her personal iPhone 5.

Copyright 2013 NPR.
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  • Shelly

    “You guys are just locking us out of too much stuff.” is the key quote. Everything else is nonsense. The times they are a’-changing.

    • ClassThink

      I’m not sure things are changing that much. Schools have always restricted technology use, and students have always fought against it, it’s just that now the iPad (as a result of Apple not taking into consideration common use cases in schools) allows students to opt out of those restrictions.

      It’s very likely that in the case of LA overbearing restrictions were applied to the devices, prompting the student’s action. But we still have to remember that when schools provide devices to students they have a responsibility to make sure those devices are used safely and in a way that protects the school and student from harm. As a result some restrictions and guidance is always going to be required. Apple’s platform currently doesn’t allow for this type of management to be controlled in a way that scales — hence the problem in LA.

      If you’re interested, I’ve written more about this here: http://www.classthink.com/2013/08/31/can-users-remove-ipad-mdm-management-profiles/

  • David V. Loertscher

    So, we find out that this is an adult problem, not really a kid problem. And, we find out that adults in the classroom don’t know how to use an iPad for education. And, we find out that one student prefers an iPhone. It is not the technology’s fault. Let’s all try to figure out who on earth could help turn a technology into an educational tool. The answer is the elephant in the room. But, are we smart enough to take advantage of it?

    • Binkie

      In the absence of definition, “it,” is neither good nor bad. Has the attempt to control people at such a granular level ever succeeded? As I recall, kids all want to be treated like the adults they aspire to be. Learning to respect that is an adult problem, so is the use of cookie cutter policies. Administrators have a difficult job, being adult all the time.

  • ClassThink

    There are two fundamental issues raised here:

    1. iPads do not scale well in a way that can be successfully managed in schools. This isn’t “hacking” it’s simply a failing in the design of the iOS operating system. The fact that students can remove MDM management profiles and factory reset a school device is Apple’s failing. The operating system is designed this way and whoever is responsible for the roll out should have known this.

    2. The consumerisation of technology means students using devices that they own and are comfortable with. Providing a standard device to hundreds of thousands of students fails to leverage the true strengths of student 1:1 devices.

    We will look back in five years time with regret at the ridiculous amount of money spent on leasing schemes and tablet roll outs.

    This is the opinion of a technologist. Someone who believes that mobile technology is the future of learning. But the impetus must come from students, not from IT managers.

    • @maddaug33

      I am an IT manager for a school division and the push to have Ipads everywhere does not come from me. It comes from higher up. The teachers are really the ones who should be making the call as to what devices are used in the classroom. Ultimately the failure or success to implementing any technology in their classroom rests with them.

      • ClassThink

        I disagree that the failure rests with teachers. The decision on which technology to use should be a collaboration between teachers and IT Managers. Of course we have to take into account the benefits to teaching, but we also have to make sure technology roll outs are done safely and in the most cost effective way.

  • Rene Hohls

    Teachers think they are the only ones who can teach – and that they have nothing to learn. Missing the point entirely.

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