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5 Lessons drawn from the LAUSD iPad fiasco

by Sam Gliksman

August 28, 2014 | 11:49 am

<em>iPad. File Photo</em>

iPad. File Photo

It’s becoming difficult to read the news in Los Angeles these days without running across yet another article about the problems faced by the sputtering LAUSD iPad initiative. Finally, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy announced this week that they were suspending the contracts with Apple and Pearson amid increasing scrutiny and investigation of the bidding process. According to Deasy, “it will also give us time to take into account concerns raised surrounding the project”.

There were always valid questions surrounding a bidding process that granted enormous contracts for digital courses that had not yet been developed. It’s unfortunate however that an investigation into the bidding process became the catalyst for the project’s suspension when it was the planning and implementation that fell woefully short in so many areas. Hindsight may be 20-20 but many were already pointing out substantial flaws in the plan at its initial announcement.

As educators we know that failure is the breeding ground for learning and adapting. With that in mind, here are 5 lessons that can be drawn from the LAUSD iPad experience.

Lesson 1:  Change starts with a vision.

Recognizing the need for change and crafting a vision that defines desirable outcomes are vastly different missions. Most of us see an aging school system that’s desperately in need of an overhaul but our actions often address the symptoms without digging down to the root cause of the crisis. Contrary to popular belief, the US spends more per student than any other country. That spending isn't always reflected in results that show US students continuing to drop in performance rankings. Technology is widely viewed as a panacea so it's not surprising that many districts and schools are investing heavily in educational technology systems and devices. However, the dominant trend maintains the status quo and patches technology use on existing pedagogical models. When we turn a blind eye to the massive disruption occurring in the world around us we fail to build new educational visions that harness the enormous potential of technology to reform learning. 

The cost of the LAUSD iPad initiative was initially estimated at $500 million but was quickly revised to one billion dollars within the first few months. If for no other reason, financial accountability would demand a well thought out and designed vision for technology use - a vision that addresses the evolving needs of modern learners and changes the rigid, curriculum driven instruction that has characterized institutionalized education for decades. Instead, whatever plan there may have been was sketchy, poorly communicated and certainly didn’t stem from any attempt at educational renaissance. Rather than aspiring to renewal and reform, from the beginning LAUSD was mired in delays and technical fixes that were reflex reactions to unanticipated events. The classic example occurred when iPads were recalled within days of their initial rollout as students quickly found a simple way to bypass the web filters and r... that had been imposed on them. 

As I wrote a year ago;

     “Technology can be used to empower students to research, discover, create and connect within more student-centered, experiential learning processes ... In contrast, LAUSD’s iPad initiative is still entrenched within an age-old educational paradigm that stresses course delivery and administrative control. The iPad becomes a glorified digital textbook that contains extensive Common Core courses by Pearson for pre-K to 12th grade, designed to prepare students for standardized tests.”

The plan seemed questionable from the start when Superintendent John Deasy tweeted, “We are transforming education!” alongside a photo of an African-American student holding an iPad. Equality of access is a laudable first step - but then what? Poor infrastructure, over-zealous filtering, incomplete apps, inadequate training … these are not the ingredients of an educational revolution. Transformation requires deep rooted re-evaluations of objectives, processes and expectations. Has anything of substance changed when the objective is to deliver Pearson course materials on iPads? Digital content delivery is still content delivery.

Lesson 2:  Top-down strategies rarely work without communication and consensus.

The project's vision and objectives need to be communicated and discussed openly with the primary stakeholders. A significant reason for the hasty implementation was the need to prepare students for Common Core testing that had to be conducted on digital devices. While some individual teachers saw an opportunity for innovation, as a group they didn't understand or buy into the concept of a 1:1 iPad program. A December 2013 survey revealed that a large majority of teachers would have voted to discontinue the iPad rollout.  Most teachers viewed it as an additional burden. They weren’t given a voice in the formation of the plan and lacked the necessary clarity with respect to the project goals. The general school community still remains puzzled by the concept of Common Core standards, the perceived rush to purchase several hundred thousand devices and the continual stream of negative press after the initial rollout. LAUSD leadership was dictating terms of a very expensive and hastily conceived plan. They failed to communicate a clear understanding of the urgent need for reform in an education system that's becoming more rapidly outdated with every passing day. As a result, they didn't get the support of teachers and the community at large. 

Lesson 3:  Training requires more than an introductory “how-to” workshop.

If your dentist tells you he’s about to remove your wisdom teeth you’d hope he has more experience than an afternoon workshop in tooth extraction. When it comes to using technology however, many administrators imagine that teachers simply need a few hours in a crowded room with a technology instructor and they’re good to go. 

Effective technology use requires a change in school culture. Firstly, training has to extend far beyond simple “how-to” sessions. Teachers need to feel comfortable with technology in their classroom. Don't mistake that to mean that they need to be skilled in technology applications. Knowing how to use an iPad or a specific curriculum app doesn't translate into an understanding of how to utilize iPads as effective educational tools. Training should reflect the educational goals and stimulate discussion about new horizons and pedagogical practices.  

Secondly, educational technology training is not an “event”. It’s an ongoing process that's busy with ongoing discussion, experimentation and evaluation. Technology use can stimulate cultural change when it's energized by sharing and collaboration and encouraged to swell from the bottom up.

LAUSD pilot teachers were given an initial 3 day workshop - one day by Apple and two additional days by Pearson to provide instruction on their Common Core curriculum app. The result? When surveyed in December, a majority of the teachers reported they were using iPads in their classes less than 3 hours a week.

Lesson 4:  Technology should empower students.

Technology has the capacity to empower students to research, create, connect and collaborate. Close the spigot on a tap however and you can't get water out of it. When technology use is heavily restricted and locked down it loses the power to innovate. You can’t plan a successful technology implementation that’s based upon fear of what students might do if they aren’t strictly controlled. Yet that’s exactly what many schools continue to do.

Outside of school students are programming, creating and editing video, sharing, collaborating and more. They get to school and we block and monitor their every digital step. One LAUSD student put it simply when asked why students hacked into the iPads after the initial rollout. He said, “we couldn’t do anything with it”. If technology is to become a vehicle for empowerment then we have to loosen the reins and give students the flexibility and opportunity to create, communicate and innovate.

Lesson 5:  It's not about the device.

The LAUSD initiative was officially known as the “Common Core Technology Project” however most people referred to it as the “LAUSD iPad Project”. The device became synonymous with the project – a project that's now developed into a discussion about which device would best enhance education. Rarely does this important debate touch upon the potential of the device - any device - to truly empower students and reform education. Technology is a tool. We can call for new proposals and change the tools but no device, iPad or otherwise, has the capacity to revolutionize learning if it’s confined within the framework of traditional goals and processes.

Sadly, just as many thought the LAUSD initiative was all about iPads, many will now view the fiasco as a reflection on the overall merits of technology use in education. The calls for a “back to basics” movement have been loud and may now become amplified. Ironically however, the LAUSD iPad project has always been handicapped by that very “basics” mentality that frames its approach to technology use. The shortcomings of the LAUSD initiative only highlight an ever more pressing need for serious educational reform.

Author of iPads in Education for Dummies 
Contact Sam for workshops and professional development at samgliksman@gmail.com

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