New problems surface in L.A. Unified's iPad program

Hacking by students and missing iPads are only part of the problem. Did anyone ask if the teaching software is any good?

Don't worry, L.A. Unified officials keep telling us. The $1-billion program to give iPads to more than 600,000 K-12 students is going to work out fine.

Maybe. But so far, nobody at district headquarters gets any gold stars for the rollout.

Last week, students at Roosevelt High were almost instantly able to breach the wall intended to keep them from using the iPads as toys rather than tools. They simply deleted the personal profiles on their tablets and presto! A free pass to YouTube and Facebook.

As my colleague Howard Blume reported, the district initially said 185 students had broken through the wall, but soon the number was adjusted up to 260. Then an additional 80 students at two other high schools made monkeys of the L.A. Unified geniuses who approved the setup.

As one Roosevelt student explained, they had to do something. The problem with the iPads, as issued?

"You can't do nothing with them. You just carry them around."

Where do I begin?

Is that a case of lousy students, bad teaching, uninspired software or a failure to fully appreciate the challenge of convincing students the tablets are for education rather than recreation?

The Roosevelt story was followed by another Blume report that 71 iPads were "missing" from an early implementation program last year.

Let's just call them goodbiPads.

And speaking of what happens when the tablets leave campus, Board of Education member Monica Ratliff called it "extremely disconcerting that the parent and student responsibility issue has not been hammered out" when it comes to damaged or lost iPads, which cost almost $700 apiece. (Keyboards, an apparent afterthought, will cost the district an additional $38 million).

L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy has a lot to answer for. But these little snafus may be distracting everyone from bigger concerns about Deasy's determination to move faster than any other large district in getting every student wired.

One question is whether the educational software is any good, or whether everyone was so focused on the hardware that they forgot to scrutinize the separately purchased content?

Steve Zimmer, a board member, said he isn't ready to judge the software, but he agreed that he and other district officials may have had their eye on the wrong ball in making a huge financial commitment without more discussion.

There was "a lot of talk about the machine and…very little talk about software," said Zimmer, who was motivated in part by his conviction that tablets can serve as an equalizer in a district with so many disadvantaged students. He said he put faith in Deasy and the procurement process because "frankly we are not equipped as board members to micromanage."

I'd have to disagree with him there.

We're talking about a superintendent who's in a race to spend $1 billion, counting bringing Wi-Fi to classrooms. And let's not forget that Deasy was featured as a pitchman in a commercial for iPads, and Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino (who just resigned in a snit over the tech implementation) once worked for the parent company of Pearson, the firm hired to provide curriculum for the iPads.

So, yeah, do some micromanaging. Hold people accountable. Ask questions.

As in, what was so compelling about the Pearson proposal that L.A. Unified bought a product sight unseen?

Did the district do a thorough job of evaluating other software options, and is it too late to change course before committing millions on the next phase of the rollout?



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