It's becoming difficult to read the news in Los Angeles these days without running across yet another article about the problems faced by Los Angeles Unified School District's sputtering iPad initiative. After a year filled with controversy and missteps, former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy finally suspended 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." Several weeks later, he resigned from his position.
There were always valid questions surrounding a bidding process that granted enormous contracts for as-yet undeveloped digital courses. It's unfortunate, however, that an investigation into bidding became the catalyst for the project’s suspension when it was the planning and implementation that fell woefully short in so many areas. Many had already pointed out substantial flaws when the plan was first announced.
As educators, we know that failure is the breeding ground for learning and adapting. With that in mind, here are five 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 desperately in need of overhaul, but our actions often address the symptoms without digging down to the root of the crisis. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. spends more per student than any other country. That spending isn't always reflected in unfavorable comparisons between U.S. students and those in other OECD countries. With technology widely viewed as a panacea, it's not surprising that many districts and schools are investing heavily in edtech systems and devices. However, the dominant trend maintains the status quo and patches technology use onto existing pedagogical models. When we turn a blind eye to the massive disruption occurring globally, we fail to build new educational visions that harness the enormous potential of technology to reform learning.
The cost of the LAUSD iPad initiative, initially estimated at $500 million, was quickly revised to $1 billion within the first few months. Financial accountability alone would demand a well thought out and designed vision for technology use, addressing the evolving needs of modern learners and changing the rigid, curriculum-driven instruction that has characterized institutionalized education for decades. Instead, the plan was sketchy, poorly communicated, and certainly didn't stem from any attempt at educational renaissance. Rather than aspiring to renewal and reform, LAUSD was mired from the beginning 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.
A year ago, I described the iPad as a glorified digital textbook, because the plan had 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, overzealous filtering, incomplete apps, and inadequate training are not the ingredients of an educational revolution. Transformation requires deep-rooted reevaluations 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 primary stakeholders. A significant reason for hasty implementation was the need to prepare students for Common Core testing that had to be conducted on digital devices. While some 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 viewed it as an additional burden. They weren't given a voice in forming the plan and lacked the necessary clarity about 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 teacher and community support.
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. That doesn't mean they need to be skilled in technology applications. Knowing how to use an iPad or a specific curriculum app doesn't translate into understanding 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 full of 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 three-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 three 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. When technology use is heavily restricted and locked down, it loses the power to innovate. You can't plan successful technology implementation based on 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. In school, 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 must loosen the reins and give students flexibility and opportunity to create, communicate, and innovate.
Lesson 5: It's not about the device.
While the LAUSD initiative was officially called the "Common Core Technology Project," most people referred to it as the "LAUSD iPad Project." The device became synonymous with a project that blossomed 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 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 loud calls for a "back to basics" movement may now become amplified. Ironically, the LAUSD iPad Project was always handicapped by a "basics" mentality that framed its approach to technology use. The shortcomings of the LAUSD initiative only highlight an ever more pressing need for serious educational reform.