After a rocky first-year rollout of tens of thousands of student iPads, the Los Angeles Unified School District is preparing to make significant changes in the country's largest 1-to-1 school computing initiative.
According to LAUSD officials speaking at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, being held here this week, the next wave of schools tentatively slated to receive digital devices as part of the 651,000-student district's Common Core Technology Project will first need to demonstrate both their "instructional readiness" and their preparedness to deploy the devices safely.
And following the LAUSD board's December decision to require that some schools test devices other than iPads, the district is also finalizing plans to allow 20 high schools to instead use a mixture of Chromebooks and laptop computers, beginning in September, the officials said.
The third big change is that LAUSD is scrapping its earlier plans to send all devices home with students. Instead, the district is now developing a new policy that will leave that decision up to individual schools and require formal parental "opt-in" at those sites where devices do go home.
"Any mistake that any other school district has made [in going 1-to-1], we made it bigger," said Rick Hassler, the coordinator for implementation and deployment for the project. "To do this in a small district is a feat. To do it in a large district like ourselves is miracle."
'New energy' in the classroom
During the ISTE panel and subsequent interview with Education Week, Hassler and other LAUSD officials talked about continued enthusiasm for the 1-to-1 initiative, touting the "whole new level of energy" shown by teachers and students in the nearly four dozen schools where iPads were deployed this year.
The evidence of such instructional change is mostly anecdotal at this point, the officials said, but examples of "amazing things" in Los Angeles classrooms—from special education students making movies, to teachers using the popular digital game "Minecraft" in lessons about Mars' colonization, to widespread participation in the "hour of code" computer-programming instruction—are plentiful, they maintained.
"I think what we've learned is that we have a lot of very creative, innovative teachers who, because of a lack of technology, weren't able to do these things in the past," said A. Rasheed Khan, the coordinator of learning management systems for the project.
Media coverage of the initiative, however, has been mostly unfavorable.
In September, reports of "hacked" devices took root, quickly expanding to include critical coverage of iPad thefts, parental concerns about lack of clarity regarding liability for the devices, an investigation into the process by which a contract that could ultimately amount to $500 million was awarded, and teacher and board complaints about the district's decision to purchase a new digital curriculum from publishing giant Pearson that remains far from complete, comes at an unidentified cost, and that LAUSD will lose the rights to after three years.
"We didn't anticipate being attacked," said Khan, who said the district has since formed a communications task force for the project that meets weekly.
The major "lessons learned" from the problems, the LAUSD officials said, included recognition of the need to better involve parents in the effort from the outset; focus more heavily on "digital citizenship" training for students, parents, and teachers; and better gauge schools' readiness before deploying devices.
In response, LAUSD has partnered with San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media. The group, which evaluates media and technology products for families and has prepared resources to help guide school 1-to-1 implementations, has developed digital citizenship lessons for Los Angeles' students and parents.
LAUSD officials are also busy developing a new approach to selecting the next round of schools at which devices will be rolled out. Rather than a fixed schedule, Hassler said, the district intends to use both a survey to gauge schools' operational readiness and a mixture of tools to assess schools' preparedness to incorporate new digital devices as teaching and learning tools.
The "pre-deployment survey" will consist of a checklist of tasks that schools must complete, including ensuring that staff complete the digital citizenship training and that parents sign and return packets of information related to the devices.
Schools' "instructional readiness" will be gauged in two ways. Principals will be expected to complete a self-assessment about such issues as their staff members' desire to receive the devices and willingness to take instructional risks. Principals will also be required to take a district-provided course, currently being developed, that will focus on developing instructional goals and strategies that align with the Common Core and with ISTE's educational technology standards.
And the LAUSD board is expected to vote Tuesday on contracts for a variety of laptop computers that are to be tested out in high schools beginning in September. Officials described the devices that were selected by schools as a mix of convertible, clamshell, and tablet devices that run either the Microsoft Windows 8 or Google Chrome operating system.
The decision to add more devices into the Common Core Technology Project's mix came at the urging of some board members who questioned the wisdom of a top-down decision to rely entirely on iPads for hundreds of schools serving students across a wide range of circumstances and grade levels.
"I think this pilot is a good thing," Hassler said. "If we just go whole-hog on the iPads and don't test other options, I think it's doing ourselves a disservice, because we're so huge."
A 'fear-based' policy?
The officials were less supportive of the new policies related to allowing students to take their devices home.
"I think the process by which we got here is a disappointment," said Khan, the learning management systems coordinator. He cited concerns about online safety and threats that students would get "beat up" for their iPads as "negative and fear-based."
Twenty LAUSD schools with 1-to-1 computing programs that are not associated with the Common Core Technology Project have some form of a take-home model, he said.
This summer, the LAUSD is gathering from schools the 80,000 devices that have already been deployed in order to safely store them in a central location and provide security, software, and content updates.
That will include updates to Pearson's Common Core System of Courses, the officials said. Despite being touted as a key selling point of LAUSD's deal with Apple that would become the primary instructional resource for grades K -12 in the country's second-largest district, the version of the new digital curriculum currently available on student devices remains just a "few completed lessons per grade level," said Rustrum Jacob, the project's virtual learning complex facilitator.
Hassler, the implementation and deployment coordinator, said evaluating the curriculum has been difficult because it is incomplete.
"In order to do a fair evaluation, you need full content," he said.
Two independent agencies have been tasked with evaluating the initiative, the officials said. A mixture of survey data, interviews with staff and district instructional experts, and usage and related data gleaned from the devices themselves are expected to be used, they said.