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iPad Scandal Grows in L.A., Raising Leadership Questions

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The story of how the Los Angeles Unified School District contracted for iPads and software with Apple and Pearson is not going away.  Last Wednesday, there were calls for more investigation, editorial condemnation, and public questions about whether Superintendent John Deasy can, or should, survive this issue and others.  On Thursday, it was revealed that the district's inventory could not account for $2-million worth of computers and tablets.  On Friday, former Deputy Superintendent Jamie Aquino denied improperly steering education technology contracts to the two firms.  Much more, we are assured, will appear in coming days and weeks.

The thread of the public story tends to conflate several issues.  The first, of course, is loyalty to Deasy and board and management regime that was the product of former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigoa's reform agenda.  Deasy's many supporters equate any attack on him as "anti-reform," as one comment posted in the Times web site illustrates.  His many opponents will reliably jump on any occasion to discredit the superintendent.  Thus, it's no surprise that United Teachers Los Angeles views the situation with alarm and is calling for an independent investigation.  "The superintendent does not get to just say, 'never mind' after all the problems the iPad rollout caused this district," the union said in a press release.

Less a Question of Scandal than Judgment

Underneath the daily politics of L.A. schools lie three important educational issues: less a question of scandal than of judgment.

First, whether children of poverty should have the same technological learning tools that more advantaged kids have.  Of course they should.  Deasy argues that to deny these children this advantage is tantamount to a civil rights violation.  Others have argued that the neighborhoods in which these students live are so violent and their families so unsettled that they are unable to reap the advantages of technology, and the tablet computers themselves would become targets for theft.

But it's easy to observe that poor kids tend to show up at school with smartphones, and that they are pretty tech savvy.  (The students in L.A. took less than a week to hack the security system on the iPads that kept them from open access to the web.)  Applications in developing countries illustrate the power of technology to deliver instruction to difficult to reach places and people.

Second, should a school district lead pedagogical reform by buying technology?  Education policy does not lack for those who think that technology alone can transform education.  Clayton Christensen and colleagues call Internet technology a disruptive force that will transform teaching and learning, and they compare it to past technologies, like microcomputers, that that have fundamentally changed other industries.  They predicted that by the end of this decade over half of high school classes would be taught through computer technology.  [See my review.]  But technologists have a history of overpromising and underdelivering, and the path of disruption that technologies follow is one of user adoption, not centralized purchase. 

Michael Fullan, the Canadian academic who has been influential with California policy makers, believes in the transformative power of technology, but only when it is connected to a strong pedagogy.  "The notion that having a laptop computer or hand-held device for every student will make her or him smarter, or even more knowledgeable is pedagogically vapid," he writes.

Thus, the question to ask of the Apple/Pearson contract is how it would change teaching and learning and whether the technology levers change throughout the district.  iPads for students don't make a lot of sense without a learning infrastructure for schools.  LAUSD, like all districts in the state, has an implementation plan for the Common Core of State Standards and their associated tests.  I would look there first to see if all the technology is organizationally plugged in.

Is the Massive Purchase Prudent or Efficacious?

Third, is the strategy of a massive, district-wide purchase of equipment and software from a single vendor prudent or efficacious?

I'd argue that it's not. 

I make no claim to technological sophistication, but from the academic and commercial developers I've talked to and the students (some in elementary school) who teach me about Minecraft and other cool applications, I've concluded that users like to bring their own machines and have some control over the applications they use.

The, so-called, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategy, is controversial because it highlights an economic divide between students able to purchase such devices and those who can't.  But technology scholarships for students might well be less costly than the iPad purchase program.  A $300 technology voucher for every student in the district would cost $180-million.

In earlier posts, I wrote about an experiment in the Riverside Unified School District—note that they did not start with the whole district at once—where high school students checked out tablet computers at the beginning of the year.  They contained most of the student's texts, a classroom management and reporting system, and a progress dashboard that appeared when the device—a Kindle Fire—was turned on.

If a student wanted, he or she could bring another manufacturer's tablet.  The school district's instructional system was device agnostic.  It worked equally well with the different operating systems.

And the school district went to great lengths to emphasize that the computer tablet was a student's personal device.  Tablets were carried home in backpacks.  There were no restrictions on Internet access.  Students were free to load their music, games, videos, photos.  They were also free to use the machine in ways that adults might well think were inappropriate.  (They were told that each machine would be examined at the end of the year and that the school would learn how they had used the machine.)

I've also learned that vigorous competition among suppliers at the level of individual lessons and projects helps school districts and students, if they are capable of unbundling their purchases rather than buying packages of curriculum.

Finally, I favor open source systems.  I think the public sector has a stake in building pedagogy in ways that teachers and students can access it for free, and so they can contribute to and improve its elements.  Preserving a strong dose of what is called peer production both protects public agencies from profiteering by vendors and it gives teachers and curriculum specialists in schools a role in developing teaching tools.  And students too; they are the workers in this system.

So what to do?  Times columnist Sandy Banks may have summed up last week best, saying: "The hitch in the iPad program is not merely a pause to correct "suboptimal" measures, as Deasy likes to insist.  It's a rebuke of his way of doing business.  And that's what he needs to fix."

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