Los Angeles Schools’ iPad Purchase Costs Millions and Runs Into Major Snags

Educational technology is often imagined as the answer—how we’re going to launch our children into the future.  If all our kids just had computers—or iPads— we would be sure to have moved into the twenty-first century.  None of that old-fashioned stuff that used to fill the school day.

This past week, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—the nation’s second largest school district with 650,000 students—received a report it had commissioned from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), to evaluate the first phase of its purchase and distribution of iPads for all students. In what is a 95 page report, AIR concludes that getting the technology, getting the iPads to work, getting the iPads used, and getting them used to teach to the Common Core Standards are very different things.

The Los Angeles iPad purchase is a $1.3 billion effort that has been controversial for several reasons.  First the school district used restricted capital improvement and construction bond money to purchase the iPads and curriculum.  A second issue is that Superintendent John Deasy has been shown to have had close ties to Apple, maker of the iPads, and Pearson, creator of the curriculum installed on the machines.  Some speculate that the project has turned Deasy into a liability for the district and that he will soon be out of a job.

To begin its 95 page report, AIR supplies a succinct explanation of the aims of the iPad purchase as well as a short description of steps the Los Angeles Unified Schools took to train its staff to begin implementation:

“The Common Core Technology Project (CCTP) is the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s signature investment in technology, with plans to deliver technology devices to every teacher and student in the district.  The CCTP aims to transform learning throughout the district by providing interactive and engaging learning environments, supporting implementation of the Common Core State Standards with digital curriculum materials and assessment, and closing the ‘Digital Divide’ by ensuring that all students have access to 21st century technology.

American Institutes for Research (AIR) is conducting an external evaluation of the project…. It addresses the period from August 2013 through June 2014.  In August 2013, the district deployed iPads to an initial wave of 47 ‘Phase 1’ schools.  The devices were preloaded with curriculum content designed by Pearson Education to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  External vendors (Pearson and Apple) and LAUSD staff provided two-to three-day professional development sessions in summer 2013, as well as in-school training for teachers throughout the year.  LAUSD hired 14 Virtual Learning Complex Facilitators to prepare leadership teams at each school to support the integration of Common Core Technology Resources in alignment with Common Core State Standards.  The district also assigned 14 Microcomputer Support Assistants to provide technical support focusing on configuration of devices, wireless connectivity, and hardware or software malfunctions.”

AIR identifies technical glitches and set-up of the devices as a major problem during this first phase of the roll-out: “The challenges of deployment on this scale meant that project staff not on the deployment team needed to spend their time on technical troubleshooting rather than supporting technology integration into instruction in the first year of implementation.  A key challenge was the time required to set up devices for individual users.  Other difficulties arose from lack of technological readiness of schools (staff and infrastructure)… The evaluation team recommends that, to make deployment run more smoothly, the district should find a technical solution to decrease the time spent on provisioning each device.” (emphasis in the original)

Lack of access to sufficient technical support became an overwhelming problem in many schools.  “By winter 2014, school staff were able to submit help requests directly to the Help Desk,” though initially only designated staff could submit requests for help. “The most frequent types of Help Desk requests were requests for new iPads (for new students), requests to reset disabled iPads (student forgot password), and requests to fix a problem with device management software (typically when a device was not registered in the system).”  The iPad project broke down, it seems, on the most basic level.  Nobody had thought through getting new students signed on and keeping everybody on-line. According to AIR’s report, the Help Desk still requires a one-week turnaround time—“not adequately meeting schools’ needs.”

Older children quickly figured out how to disable the content filter software installed in their iPads, and the LAUSD responded by requiring that all devices stay at school.  “This move created logistical challenges for schools to distribute and collect devices on a regular basis.  This challenge was particularly pronounced in secondary schools, where students change classrooms and teachers throughout the day.”  Requiring iPads to stay at school also negated one of the project’s goals: closing the digital divide.

AIR reports that because professional development across LAUSD was designed, “to be applicable to teachers in all schools in their regions of the district, it was not targeted specifically at integrating technology… Perhaps as a result of the lack of coordination, school staff did not perceive how CCTP supports implementation of the Common Core.”  AIR recommends that staff development programs be much better coordinated with the introduction of the technology in the future.

Pearson software intended to teach the Common Core curriculum has not been easy for staff to use. “During the school year, Pearson… provided on-site coaching and technical assistance on integrating Pearson digital content into curriculum and instruction.  However, school staff reported that Pearson curriculum materials were not complete at the time of training or that the training did not adequately prepare them for integrating technology into their instruction. AIR evaluators describe, “the need for stronger professional development and instructional support.  District administrators acknowledge that the adoption of one-to-one technology requires a more extensive set of professional development offerings than what the district had provided so far to Phase 1 schools.  School staff… participated in a two- to three-day training session…. However, district records indicate that only about 42 percent of staff who received an iPad attended the professional development.”  Follow-up trainings have not been mandatory and have focused “mainly on technical rather than instructional issues.”

AIR summarizes basic “barriers and concerns” in the report’s conclusion: technical barriers, lack of technical skills among students and staff, communication, logistical issues with software and hardware, and problems of time, support, acceptance of change, student use, access and security.  The overall lesson is something anyone whose employer has launched a new website could describe—except that in LAUSD the problems are magnified by the enormous scale of the intended change.  The people in charge dream that new technology will be transformative; they forget that technology can’t work until the people who will be using the technology have mastered its complexities.  And added on are the challenges of changing institutional culture. Machines are dependent on the people who run them, and on-line curriculum can be taught only if teachers can handle the program with insight, intentionality, and imagination.

Based on AIR’s report, Los Angeles Times writer Howard Blume condemns the iPad project: “In the first formal evaluation of the troubled iPads-for-all project in Los Angeles schools, only one teacher out of 245 classrooms visited was using the online curriculum.” “Among the issues cited at several schools: high school math curriculum wasn’t provided, efforts to log in and access curriculum were unsuccessful and at least one school said it preferred the district’s own reading program.  Four out of five high schools reported that they rarely used the tablets.”

Blume reminds readers that bidding for the iPad project may have been inadequate due to Superintendent Deasy’s close ties to Apple and Pearson. “Last month, Deasy suspended new purchases under the iPad contract and relaunched the bidding.  His close ties to Apple, which makes the tablet, and Pearson, which provided the curriculum on the iPad, are under scrutiny by the school system’s inspector general.  Deasy has denied any impropriety….”  Blume adds that LAUSD, “has purchased 109,000 iPads so far; 62,000 contain the Pearson curriculum.  It was left off devices purchased last last year for use in state standardized testing  To date, the district has spent $61 million on the iPads, including carts to charge them.”