Just two months after the much-publicized start of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $1 billion program to equip its 600,000 students with iPads and install Wi-Fi in all its schools, the L.A. Times reports that hundreds of students have hacked their iPad security so they can access the Web outside school.
Some students found that if they deleted their personal profile information they were free to tweet, socialize on Facebook, stream music and do anything else the Internet offers. In response, district officials suspended home use of the $700 iPads, and the LAUSD Police Chief has suggested the district consider delaying distribution of the devices due to security and liability concerns.
On the heels of that news, the district learned that some parents were being required to sign an agreement to be financially responsible if a student breaks or loses the device. Apparently there is no uniform policy about requiring the agreement and no policy stipulating the response if a parent refuses to sign.
According to the L.A. Times, Apple has agreed contractually to replace broken, lost or stolen machines for three years, but only up to 5% of the contract’s value. After that, it’s unclear who will be on the hook for repairs or replacement.
In yet another piece of bad news for the program, the district reported that 71 iPads distributed to students as part of a 13-school trial run last year are unaccounted for.
The district knows the names of the students assigned to the missing devices. But if students claim they turned in their devices, the district admits they have no way to prove otherwise.
iPads in the roll-out this year have GPS software that can be activated to locate the tablets. There is also an electronic inventory system that keeps track of who is responsible for each iPad. The district can shut down iPads that are reported as stolen. Of the roughly 14,000 tablets distributed this year, five went missing. One has been recovered.
How educationally clever of the LAUSD to not only provide tablets to all its students but also encourage digital literacy by organizing the first iPad hackathon. Undoubtedly, the hundreds of students who cracked the security and began surfing to their heart’s delight will receive A’s for their efforts.
On the other hand, the technology coordinators, administrators, vendors and others who planned and implemented the program, and that includes Apple, deserve D’s this semester for two reasons.
First, they failed to provide the students with a sufficiently challenging assignment. A third-grader could have figured out a way around the security system, maybe one did.
Second, the adults in charge failed their first test by failing to grasp that digital literacy isn’t just about deploying and using technology. The broad definition of digital literacy includes the ability to navigate the intersection between technology and human nature.
Students interviewed by the L.A. Times frankly told reporters that the tablets were “useless” at home without an Internet connection. Imagine having a tablet in your hands for the first time in your life and not being able to access YouTube. That’s like taking a kid to Disneyland and telling them they can’t go on the rides. What did the planners expect?
The thefts of some tablets, if that is what happened, should also have been expected. In teenager-ville iPads are legal tender. The temptation to report one missing and either keep it or sell it is bound to prove irresistible for some students. How long before some enterprising sophomore figures out a hack to game the GPS and disable the disabling software?
As was noted in Literacy 2.0 when the program first started [Literacy 2.0 8/6/13], the LAUSD is to be commended for its bold leap into educational technology. But now it has to confront its own digital illiteracy. These early glitches will likely pale in comparison to issues that loom ahead, such as when rapidly changing technology leaves the district with 600,000 wireless white elephants. How will the LAUSD Board of Education react when it has to face the legal and financial fall-out caused by a student coming into contact with a sexual predator while using the district’s property? What will happen when a student opens her iPad to find not only a history lesson but also a death threat?
Even with so many technological and legal punji pits ahead, the LAUSD’s grand iPad experiment will prove valuable to schools across the country. The program has a very good chance at becoming a modern-day parable that teaches others about the dangers of succumbing to the siren call of technology without first looking into the soul of its users.
Photo credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times / August 27, 2013