Uh oh, Los Angeles School District's $30 million iPad program falls flat

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on October 24, 2013

From The News Desk

Last week, I wrote about how one-to-one tablet programs in Missouri and Texas K-12 schools had hit some road bumps. In North Carolina when 15,000 Amplify tablets arrived -- from Rupert Murdoch's edtech company -- students broke ten percent of them. One student's charger overheated and melted, and as a result the program got temporarily suspended. [UPDATE: Amplify responded, "Amplify is working with GCS and Asus to determine what caused this. A lab is working to determine whether this was due to a manufacturing defect or another cause." It's also worth noting that Amplify has pledged to replace all tablets.]

In Texas, a consultant review of the science program iAchieve, that 70,000 students were doing on iPads, found it didn't meet curriculum standards, and students weren't learning what they were supposed to. The program was discontinued.

At the time I said, "Uh oh, this doesn't bode well for the Los Angeles School District, which just ordered $30 million worth of $700 retina display iPads for its students." School districts and tablet providers are screwing up the execution of what otherwise sounded pretty cool.

Everyone was waiting with bated breath to see how things would go over in LA. Could it stem the negative tide of school tablet woe? Or would it too succumb to nitpicky problems like first graders handling tablets with glass shards sticking out?

Well, one week after I posed the question we've got the answer. The LA School district iPad program is already in the shitter.

There's a handful of problems. For one thing, the LA Times is reporting that an updated school budget shows the price of each iPad is $100 higher than officials initially reported. I.e. the money budgeted for the iPads will now buy a lot less iPads. The miscommunication happened due to the fact that the original price -- $700 -- is a discount that only kicks in after the school has bought 520,000 iPads at $400 million. At the moment the district only plans to buy $30 million worth of iPads, so that discount is on a distant budgetary planet far far away.

There's also the additional costs, previously undiscussed, of computer carts to keep the tablets safe, keyboards for taking standardized tests on the tablets, and the purchasing of an online course system.

So, problem no. 1: the budget is already out of control.

Problem no. 2, also reported by the LA Times: 300 hundred students who got their hands on the iPads wasted no time in disassembling the firewall installed to keep them from accessing super fun sites like Facebook, YouTube, and YouPorn. Shocker! Who didn't see that coming from a mile away?

On the bright side I guess the LA school district can pat itself on the back for having such resourceful and independent students. On the other, slightly less bright side, they can sleep easy knowing students are making great use of the $30 million dollar school investment every night at home by accessing porn, playing video games, cyber bullying, catching up on episodes of "Pretty Little Liars," and other productive teenage activities.

Or not, given that the school officials immediately suspended the program and collected the iPads back at three affected campuses.

So, obviously, the news on the one-to-one device front isn't great. The one-to-one device concept is a popular one in education today, referring to the idea that every student at every school should have a tablet or computer for educational purposes. Then, they can complete their homework using intelligent software programs that we've written about, like TenMarks or Desire2Learn.

Intelligent software programs grade students assignments, track their progress, and pull new lesson material when students struggle with certain concepts. They're sort of like robot teachers. Big data meets education. They're promising, except for the fact that they presuppose every student having access to a device to do such programs. That's why there's a push for one-to-one programs, which are just starting to roll out in schools.

What happens to one-to-one device programs matters for startups in the edtech space because such companies are, for the most part, building products under the assumption that the students who use them have computer or tablet access. But in low-income areas of the country, that isn't the case. Even if schools have computer labs, they can't roll out learning management systems or edtech curriculum programs for every student in every subject without comprehensive device coverage.

The LA School District had the opportunity to be the shining example of introducing technology into the classroom and making it accessible to students of all income levels. Unfortunately at the moment it looks like it's headed down the path of the others I've covered.

The devil is in the details, and tablet program details are proving to be very devilish indeed.