On LAUSD's Failed iPad Program

Howard Blume:

Los Angeles school district officials have allowed a group of high schools to choose from among six different laptop computers for their students — a marked contrast to last year's decision to give every pupil an iPad.

Contracts that will come under final review by the Board of Education on Tuesday would authorize the purchase of one of six devices for each of the 27 high schools at a cost not to exceed $40 million.

In the fall, administrators, teachers and students at those schools will test the laptops to determine whether they should be used going forward.

What they learn will affect the future of an ongoing effort to provide computers for all students in the nation's second-largest school system.

"The benefit of the new approach is clear," said Los Angeles Unified school board member Monica Ratliff, who chaired a panel that reviewed the technology effort. "Why would we treat all our students — whether they are a first-grader or a high school freshman — as if they all had the same technology needs? They don't.... To have a one-device-fits-all approach does not make sense."

At the time, officials stressed the advantages of managing only one device and cost savings from a bulk purchase.

The rollout of the iPads last fall at 47 schools, however, was beset by challenges, controversy and some mistakes.

Students immediately deleted security filters so they could freely browse the Internet. The district recalled the devices at several schools and some students never saw them again. Distribution of the devices quickly fell behind schedule. Senior staff also incorrectly characterized terms of the contract — saying, for example, that the district owned the curriculum. Instead, the contract purchased a three-year license and the materials were incomplete during the first year.

The brand new approach is very clear. They have zero clue what they are doing. They completely botched their iPad deployment. I'm not blaming their IT department, because I don't know what happened. I do know that they didn't follow best practices at the time. They wanted to lock down the iPads, but they didn't install the main security profile through Apple Configurator. Yes, I know that was probably not practical, but that was the only way to make a security profile where the user couldn't remove it. In the recent months, Apple has released the Device Enrollment program. This allows you to accomplish what LAUSD was trying to do without having to touch each iPad. The initial failure of their iPad program was due to just the inability to follow Apple's guidelines. This was a big enough contract that Apple likely worked hand in hand with them. I have full faith that Apple told LAUSD that what they were doing would not work. While I believe that locking down an iPad to essentially a curriculum-based device does nothing to address a culture change or digital citizenship, that's a story for another day.

From an IT perspective, not standardizing on one piece of hardware is a recipe for disaster. You have to deal with various types of hardware, manufacturers, drivers, bugs, etc.

How well the various devices function will be examined by both staff and outside reviewers. Curriculum from three different vendors also are being tried: Pearson; McGraw-Hill/StudySync; and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

"Let's see what works from letting the people in the field — the teachers, the students and the parents — tell us what works," said Thomas Rubin, a consultant for a committee that oversees the spending of school-construction bonds.

Why don't we just let parents pick out cleaning materials? Let's also let students pick out their own textbooks. You are essentially saying that your technology department does not have the ability to make the correct decision.

It wasn't a perfect process. The curriculum, for example, was hard to assess in a process akin to speed dating, said one participant.

The laptop options impressed Carolyn McKnight, the principal at East Los Angeles Performing Arts Magnet, one of five schools at the Torres complex. Two chose the Lenovo Yoga Touch, two the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and the last, a Dell Latitude E7240.

A few other campuses chose Chromebooks.

"The Surface is really sexy, but I was concerned about the detachable keyboard, about students losing or breaking it," McKnight said.

Pick one horse and ride it. If you like Surface 2 Pro, standardize with it. I love iPads, but I'd rather see someone go all in on a Surface deployment instead of a crapshoot of devices.