The latest on LA School District's $30 million iPad program

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on November 14, 2013

From The News Desk

When we last checked in with LA Unified School District's (LAUSD) new iPad program, it wasn't doing so well. A portion of the program had been suspended after students hacked the security controls keeping them from accessing inappropriate or frivolous websites. The LA Times found out that the district would be paying almost $100 more per iPad than originally cited. And additional fees were emerging as a result of iPad carts, keyboards, and online courses.

Now, a few weeks later the news continues to be bad. The LA Times reported that John Deasy, the superintendent of the LAUSD who was the lead supporter of the plan, will be resigning come February. [UPDATED: See correction to this news below.] Deasy has been criticized heavily throughout the launch of the program. Board members, parents, and tax-payers alike felt his motives for inking the $30 million deal with Apple were unclear, and that he botched the execution.

On the bright side, this week the school district voted to continue with the program, albeit a pared down version with more oversight. Schools originally slated to receive iPads this year will have to wait. Meanwhile, the board will be evaluating the iPads in classrooms to determine their impact on student achievement.

As we explored in earlier stories, the $30 million LAUSD iPad initiative has broader implications for the ed-tech industry. It was a flagship program, a huge commitment to the one-to-one device movement from the country's second biggest district. And the one-to-one device movement matters greatly for ed-tech.

Plenty of the innovations being developed by edtech startups, from intelligent homework programs to gamified lessons, require the students using them to have access to a computer or tablet. That's the missing piece for scaling these programs and getting them to be used regularly by all students in all grades.

Although we've certainly entered the age of smart devices, that doesn't mean every family can afford to provide their child with such technology. Lower income school districts get left behind and can't use these programs. Even school districts with students from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds can't roll out edtech programs reliably without ensuring that every individual has access to using them. And although most schools have computer labs, one or two computer labs can't scale for using computer-based programs across all grades and subjects.

In order for many edtech companies to penetrate school markets, they need schools to adopt one-to-one programs, where every student has access to a tablet or computer.

But one-to-one programs are expensive. Time and time again, they've proved tricky to implement, whether in North Carolina where some tablets broke after students used them to Texas where the program was suspended because the tablet curriculum wasn't up to par.

The LA program was perhaps the largest one-to-one program undertaken so far across the country. It was an almost $30 million deal with Apple ($50 million including training and Internet upgrades), one that would provide tablets to all students and teachers at 47 schools in the district.

The early struggles of the LAUSD iPad program do not bode well for said program, and consequently, does not bode well for one-to-one programs in general. When school districts consider rolling out a one-to-one program, LA may very well be the example they point to as why it's not worth the money, time, or politics.

In addition to the paring down of the program, there's more bad news reported by Education Week: problems with the Pearson curriculum that accompanied the iPads. There were only few sample exercises per grade. The reason there aren't more is because the LAUSD will be working with Pearson to develop the digital courses that teachers will be using. Furthermore, the cost for Pearson's courses are still a giant question mark because Pearson is a subcontractor under Apple.

In the meanwhile, iPads are being handed out in classrooms to students without the finished curriculum for teachers to use. Teachers are confused about how exactly they should be integrate the tools in the classroom. High schoolers are hacking the security systems to access sites they shouldn't. And it's unclear how much the entire venture will cost the district -- and tax payers -- in the end.

Oi vey.

[UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy had resigned. Although he offered his resignation, a week later the school board decided to extend his contract till 2016.]