Why L.A.’s iPad Rollout Was Doomed

| October 2, 2013 | 26 Comments
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Sean MacEntee

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.

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.

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  • Elizabeth Rubenstein

    “$500 million for devices, raised through construction bonds” ?!?!?!?
    So taxpayers will be paying for these $678 iPads for 25 years….LONG after they are obsolete….
    Who’s the huckster that decided it was ok to use building funds for this????

  • FEED THE TEACHER

    I think the points mentioned have their relevance. However, I think we might have to consider other decisive points, which in my humble opinion have totally been missed.

    1, Who is the End User and how much thought has been put into it? It is not enough to hand out iPads when you have not designed an experience for your students. It is much more than a device, it is an experience that can open many doors to research, tinkering, questioning, discovery and creativity. And just like any other “element” in learning, it must follow a process.

    2. Working on the positive concept hacking – Again, the end user – the teachers and students-must understand that that energy put into discovering fissures in the system, could be used to solve other types of crisis within the community.

    3. Happiness- A simple Poll to understand what the iPads meant to the community and how they could have been put to ideal use.

    I could go on forever …but I will just end my post listing some other points that needed some more attention: digital literacy, relevance of the project outside school grounds, teamwork (parents, teachers, students and community), ideation, crisis solving strategies, trust, and last but not least…understanding that knowledge does not reside in gadgets or in teachers. Learning and teaching should be democratic moments of exchange and to my perception the iPads, with blocked settings and all the too guided activities, were seen and a painful reminder that students were meant to be seen, not heard.

    • tbarseghian

      Great points! Thank you for adding this to the conversation. We’ll be looking at these issue much closer in the coming weeks and months.

      • FEED THE TEACHER

        My pleasure…please, let me know if you wish to discuss this a bit more =)

    • Victoria Nedza

      Granted, these should have been considerations in the beginning and not have PD, for example, as an afterthought. Your points are nice, but clearly something UXD is responsible for when launching a product.

  • http://www.edresources.com/ Educational Resources

    The classroom is a unique environment and requires a solution has been built to support it. The tablet itself can be a fantastic tool to deliver lessons and engage the students, if it’s supported by a powerful infrastructure. Ease of implementation and professional development are critical to ensuring the successful use of this technology in education. Recently Midland, Texas received LearnPads to support 21st century learning in a “flipped classroom” arrangement. Read about it here: http://www.edresources.com/Blog-Customer-Success-Story-Midland.aspx

  • deserteacher

    In a nutshell, the classroom management subverted the iPad project?

  • http://willrichardson.com Will Richardson

    The LAUSD rollout was doomed because it had no modern vision for teaching and learning when every child has a connected device. If decision makers understood that technology and access shift the balance of power from the institution to the learner, that questions are more important than answers, that teachers in classrooms are only one of many potential teachers and experts in kids’ lives, that deep learning comes from pursuing personal interests and creating meaningful, authentic artifacts that impact the world in a positive way, that curriculum can’t be relegated to one small shelf in the new networked, global library, and that learning is more about discovery than delivery, they a) may never have bought iPads in the first place, and, b) they would have spent more time, much more time preparing teachers, parents, and students for that shift.

    Welcome to a $1 billion waste.

    • FEED THE TEACHER

      I think it is too early to call it a waste. I would love to have 5 minutes with one of the people participating in the deployment of this project…there is so much that can be done and it has nothing to do with expensive restriction apps or sophisticated artifacts…it has to do with listening and observing their surroundings. I have to say that sermonizing that we have to start thinking about 21st century skills will make us look awfully late. We have been in the 21st century for a couple of years now, and jargon and nice terms will not do education any good, if we don´t recognize that it´s time to rethink our practices.

      • Wayne

        It will be a waste because it is a top down imposed solution rather than a collaboration between administrators, teachers and students. As long as consultants are making the decisions and “fixing” the problems, nothing of value will be accomplished!

  • Hong

    A group of idiots spent 1 BILLION $ on ipads WHILE LAYING OFF MANY TEACHERS. I carried heavy books during high school, got into an engineering school and graduated in a timely manner. I still don’t have an ipad or a smartphone. I think that’s why I was able to focus on my studying. One idiot was saying that poor students don’t have the access to high tech and such. Then, we can have more computers at school library. Why ipad????? It’s like giving them chocolates. Just think of one simple question, “Will the students study more with ipad or not?” I don’t count browsing internet, looking at facebook or playing games as studying. I am just surprised that this actually happened. Fire them all !!!

    • Mat Ador

      Did you walk backwards uphill both ways through the snow even in the summer? Content isn’t in books or the library at an institution or in the teacher’s brain, it’s international and freely available. Everywhere. Online. Yes, even peer reviewed journals are now available via web! Once teachers recognize that, education will evolve. Focus needs to be placed on teaching, not content transfer.

  • Victoria Nedza

    Writing skills (even if that includes QWERTY) on the back burner, who would have thought?

  • Patrick

    It is not always “failure” when initial ideas don’t go as planned. Mobile devices and tablets are clearly the next wave in learning. LAUSD can learn from these initial mistakes, recover and still move forward. This is one of the largest device implementations attempted. With as many students, teachers and schools involved difficulties would obviously be expected. This is not a failure as much as an opportunity for learning and improvement.

    • FEED THE TEACHER

      Exactly! This is an excellent moment to put into practice everything we say about teaching resillience in schools. A real leader (be it a person or UD) must be able to take a step back and take positive action after going over all the possible overseen issues.

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  • Benny

    Sounds more like management and planning issues not the technology itself!

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  • Maggie Mack

    How can a school issue out technology and not train any one on using it? I would imagine that this sort of issue takes place at many school districts around the Nation, but the word has just not gotten out yet. It is a shame that teachers are not trained on how to use technology and the devices issued to the students. Teachers deal every day with students and they should be the ones who are properly trained about how to use it because then they can give a more insightful lesson and perks students interests about many issues. Now that the worms are out of the can, I hope the Nation and its school districts do some thing about it.

  • http://www.nwidesigns.com Kevin Morrison

    I think one of the key lessons here is the educators are uneducated. I think our schools need to be putting more into the classroom technology and less into something that they had to know they could not control.

    Did anyone even consider that these devices would be targets for theft? I agree with Patrick to a point but I do not think they did squat to plan this. I also think the cost of these devices is pathetic and I know that Apple has programs like this for schools where they give a really good deal on laptops and other devices. So why is it that they are paying over retail? Answer, they did not care and like so many other government run programs cost is never evaluated because they do not have to be accountable for it.

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  • David Laroche

    My own thoughts on this comes more from a device usage point of view. If it breaks, who pays for the repair? Who owns the iPad? Who is responsible for the security? Is the IT department responsible for these machines and the content on them? The teachers? How about charging the machines if they run out? Do the schools provide those facilities? Many issues here to be resolved with this type of program… I haven’t even touched the issue of learning… Teacher training… Skills being taught…

    I believe that iPads or any computing machine can be a useful tool, but there are many issues that need to be resolved before putting these tools into the hands of students…