The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, this week launched the $30-million first phase of its plan to equip all of its students with iPads. In the first year, tablets will be issued to 31,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 47 schools. Eventually, the district intends to provide tablets to its more than 660,000 students at a cost of around $500 million.
Teachers in six schools began training on the tablets just two months after the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to approve the contract with Apple, Inc. The British firm Pearson was chosen to provide curriculum. The program is being paid for through voter-approved school construction bonds.
The leap into the 21st century is costing the LAUSD nearly $700 per tablet, each of which comes pre-loaded with educational software. To offset loss, theft and damage, each machine carries a three-year replacement warranty and is equipped with a ruggedized case. The tablets are blocked against online shopping and can be disabled remotely by the district when lost or stolen.
You can’t fault the LAUSD for thinking small.
The massive iPad infusion just might rank as the largest deployment of personal electronic equipment to students and teachers in the history of education. This from a school district that has a long history of poor academic performance, overcrowded classrooms and abysmal dropout and expulsion rates — and has a pencil as its logo.
One can only hope the LAUSD is not falling for that old maxim: Buy them a tablet and they will learn.
It’s laudable that the LAUSD is putting digital tools into kids’ hands, particularly kids who in many cases cannot afford lunch much less an iPad. Within a couple of years there will be hundreds of thousands of students in all grade levels and thousands of teachers in all disciplines cruising the halls of hundreds of LAUSD campuses with iPads under their arms. Will that translate to rising grades, better attendance and greater motivation for students and staff? Will it lead to a Literacy 2.0 renaissance in Los Angeles schools?
One can only hope.
If this were just any technology implementation it would be easy to predict that down the road the LAUSD is looking at a colossal failure and accusations of irresponsible use of public funds. But there’s no precedent here, no predictive model. This is an educational experiment on a grand scale involving a form of personal computing and communication that did not exist when the current crop of high school seniors were freshmen. Regardless of plans and expectations, nobody knows what will happen.
When innovative technologies first arrive they are used to do old things in new ways. In this case, tried and true teaching methods will be supplemented and augmented by the new electronics. But, truly innovative technologies do something more. They lead to new things, things that weren’t possible before the technology existed. Computers, for example, were first used as electronic calculators. Later, unpredictably, as the result of experimentation and unconventional thinking, they became communication devices, leading eventually to email and social media.
What if the students surprise the LAUSD faculty and administrators by using their tablets in unexpected ways to create new things? What if they blow past the conventionality of their tech-hobbled teachers and find ways to teach themselves and each other? What if entirely new patterns of learning emerge from the network of interconnected devices and interconnected students? What if the crowd begins to source its own curriculum, or at least causes the curriculum to evolve in such a way that it better fits the core needs of young tableted learners? What if the tablets trigger the LAUSD Spring? Or the Tasseled Revolution?
If the LAUSD can somehow suspend its culture of command and control, can suppress its fear of anarchy, and allow self-organization into the learning process, its grand experiment might produce beneficial results that upend expectations and go far beyond improved test scores.
The LAUSD experiment just might lead to the discovery of new things in education and learning, things that never occurred to the Board of Education as they were signing the check to Apple.
One can only hope.
UPDATE: The LAUSD and seven other schools districts in California have been granted a dispensation from the restrictive testing and other rules imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, a command-and-control style law instituted in 2002. The timing could not be better for the Grand iPad Experiment as the LAUSD will now have more freedom to use millions of federal dollars to create new ways to evaluate teachers, schools and students. It might also mean freedom to just see what happens.