Most people have at least seen headlines about the problems Los Angeles schools have been having with student iPad tablet computes. The schools purchased these computers for the students to run applications and visit websites approved by the school. In the very first day the students “hacked” them so they could talk to one another, share music, and go to unapproved websites. The school district police chief suggested in a confidential memo that district delay issuing more tablets. Some of the schools are taking the tablets back and the district is considering a slower rollout.
My first thought is what the students did is exactly what the 21st century economy needs people to do:
- Be fluent with computers.
- Talk to peers and build a tribe.
- Use the technology and network to do new things that sound wrong by conventional standards and somewhat frightening to existing power structures.
The biggest problem, I thought, was the security was too easy to hack. They should make it harder, so that only 10% of the students could do it. They could add the new security and tell students they’re now safe from talking to one another and from unapproved websites that give the political, religious, or extremists viewpoints. They would only be able to do things that support the national Common Core Standards Initiative. (Common Core is one of the main selling points used to market tablets to schools and is one reason for Los Angeles schools’ tablet computer purchase.) Not in a day, but this time in a week, the smartest kids would have hacked the tablets again. The cool kids would be sharing/listening to music, going to the wrong websites, tweeting articles from Fox News, Al Jazeera, The Nation, People magazine, looking at porn, and so on. Continuing this fantasy, the school would again act shocked and appalled and install even better security. They would repeat this cycle until they had a school in which hacking skills and sharing new ideas with a tribe were as cool as everything else the government tries to discourage kids from doing.
When I researched the issue and talked to someone who had kids in the LA public schools, I discovered reality is much more complicated than this techie/libertarian fantasy the headlines conjured. There were practical problems with how the school introduced the tablets:
- The school borrowed money on 25 year notes to purchase tablets with a three-year warranty and an estimated life of three to five years. Imagine if a school were just now finishing paying for 286-based IBM ATs they bought 25 years ago in 1988!
- The cost of the tablets with software was $678, significantly higher than the cost of tablets in stores. The software is only partially developed.
- There was no plan in place to deal with tablets being lost or stolen. Under California law, students and families cannot be held liable for loss of equipment provided by the school.
- The school district realized after it purchased the tablets that it would need to purchase keyboards in order to use the tablets on Common Core testing, which was one of their primary intended uses of the tablets.
Despite these serious logistical errors, the LA school district is on the right track in encouraging tablet use in schools. For these kids, tablet computers will not be the fancy toys they seem to adults but the primary method of reading books and a user interface for many devices, including lab equipment, that now have buttons and displays.
The logistic errors are easy to correct. The difficult part is working out just how to use the technology. We cannot take the approach that NASA critics say we took with the Space Shuttle: This is the amazing but expensive hardware we want to use. It has great potential. Let’s look for things to do with it. We need to define what we want to do and then find technologies than help do it.
Next time, I’ll write about educational experts’ differing opinions of what computers should be doing in schools.
Further Reading on LAUSD iPad Rollout
- LAUSD Luanches Its Drive to Equip Every Student with iPads (8/27/13) - Gives numbers that show the drastical implementation errors LAUSD made
- LAUSD Halts Home Use of iPads for Students After Devices Hacked (9/25/2013) - Menions the leaked police memo recommending a delay in the rollout.
- New Problems Surface in LA Unified's iPad Program (9/28/2013) - Asks the key question, "Did any one ask if the teaching software is any good?"
Further Reading on Tablets in School in General