A few months ago, I wrote about all the new iPads the LA school district is handing out to its students. Thanks to a voter approved tax increase, there is suddenly money for the politicians to shower on their constituents to buy future votes. Never mind that before the election the new tax dollars were marketed as necessary evils to shore up ancient school buildings and infrastructure. After the election, the school district decided that it was far sexier and crowd pleasing to buy iPads for every student in the school district instead of fixing old plumbing.
Many people, including myself, were wary of handing out expensive electronics to every single student. Improving student education can't be as simple as handing out iPads to all of them then expect their achievement scores to shoot higher. Sure enough, within days of passing out the devices, the district came to the sudden realization the iPads really aren't that great for writing papers. There is no doubt they are wonderful for presenting textbooks with eye catching animation and searching the internet for information, but when it comes to writing, you know, one of the three R's fundamental to education, the iPads really suck. So the schools decided they needed to spend millions of dollars more to buy keyboards for those iPads. So a $700 iPad now needed more money to make it useful when a simple laptop can be had for less than $500. But an ultrabook is certainly not as sexy as an iPad.
The crisis worsened this week when the school district realized that many students had already figured out how to hack into their iPads. The iPads were supposed to be secured so that it will only present the electronic textbooks that the students use in class. They weren't supposed to be able to search outside the school's intranet. Well that firewall lasted all of about a week. The kids, again many from lower economic classes, quickly figured how to break the security system so that they were using their tablets for Facebook, YouTube, and anything else on the internet. The breach was as easy as deleting the student's own profile on his tablet and logging in as a guest. Voila. Free web surfing for all with no restrictions. Now the school district is temporarily putting on hold the distribution of more iPads as it considers spending even more money to beef up the security.
Finally, the school board belatedly realized that iPads posed a safety risk to their students. With every student carrying the tablet home every night to do their homework, hundreds of thousands of iPads are floating through the streets of Los Angeles, all of them potential targets for crime. The school hasn't yet decided how to protect their precious purchases or the lives of the students. While they would like the students to be responsible for their own devices, they also don't want them to resist a robber who could physically harm them trying to steal the tablets. Already over 70 iPads have been reported missing.
The district thought about having the parents sign contracts stating they would be responsible for any lost or damaged iPads but again many of the families are poor so the contracts would be meaningless since they wouldn't be able to pay. The district also can't withhold iPads after one is damaged or stolen because there are no more textbooks. If a student doesn't have one, he can't do his homework and keep up with his peers. So the school has to issue a replacement iPad to any student who lost his.
It's unbelievable that these issues were not addressed before the LAUSD signed a $1 billion contract with Apple to supply iPads to all the students. Can they stop the program and pay a penalty for breach of contract? They probably could but they won't. First, they would need time to bring books back into the classroom. The students and families may also be reluctant to give up their electronic toys now that they've had a chance to use them. The district board members probably wouldn't want to admit defeat and lose potential votes in future elections by affirming voters' suspicions of their spendthrift ways. My feeling is they will probably double down on the money to make sure this program works at least until the next election. Am I cynical? You betcha. With the incompetence of the LAUSD on full display, it looks like everybody should be leery of politicians who promise the moon if only we can give them more money.