November Issue

Vol 23|No 2|November 2013

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Los Angeles USD Makes iPad Lurch

Ipads are cool, but they are not silver bullets. It is hard to build a case for any school or school district buying one for every student, let alone a city system as large as LAUSD. Ipads have strengths and weaknesses as outlined in my November, 2011 article, "Is the iPad a Game Changer?" The weaknesses loom large enough to justify a cautious approach. The purchasing decision should be firmly grounded in curriculum and learning goals. Unfortunately, school leaders often put the cart before the horse, thinking equipment will work miracles, when it is teaching and pedagogy that matter more.

I first learned of the LAUSD effort by reading a summary of Anya Kamenetz's blog for The Hechinger Report. Her blog "The inside story on LA schools’ iPad rollout: 'a colossal disaster'" mentions a lack of professional development, a lack of significant piloting, a lack of planning for take-home and a number of other glaring issues. She reports criticism of the roll-out for the billion dollar plan by "two LAUSD contractors who have first-hand knowledge of the rollout." Interesting sources! One wonders why these two were so eager to complain, but it is important to note that there is no mention of educational purpose or the lack of same in her blog.

First the Equipment

cartIn fairness to Supt. John Deasy, one might want to listen to his defense of the iPad initiative on an October 3 district TV show as reported by Howard Blume of the LA Times (article). While the transcript of that program is not available, the district Web site does mention that the iPad program is called The Common Core Technology Project that "equips classrooms with new technology, and provides every student with access to a personal tablet device that creates a richer educational experience." Following that link to pages devoted to the project, we learn that "Students will develop 21st century knowledge, skills and abilities that will be needed to graduate high school and become college and career ready." But there is no specificity.

In a quick video, one principal mentions that LAUSD must be "in the forefront of innovation in education. Everyone understands that technology is no longer a luxury." He argues that this is a matter of equity. But it sounds mostly like technology for the sake of technology, as if the mere possession of a tablet will improve learning. Another video has teachers expressing enthusiasm. One teacher says "We can spend more time deepening what we do." There is more rhetoric about 21st Century Students and Global Citizens, but the video is short on examples.

Probing further into the project's pages, one reads the following vague goals:

By scaling up this transformational effort to every K-12 classroom in LAUSD, we will accomplish the following critical objectives:

  1. Equip educators with tools to advance student learning in the classroom
  2. Support the Common Core State Standards, including student engagement with a digital curriculum, interactive supports, and computer adaptive assessments, and
  3. Close the digital divide by ensuring that every student has access to 21st century classroom technology.

The most promising resources on the project pages are models for assessing the progress one makes using new technologies to support powerful thinking. But these pages are listed almost as an after thought in an apparently voluntary manner. It is all very sketchy. It seems too much like cart before the horse.

You may have heard of some of these models before. Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) is a popular model that looks at four levels of technology integration. Another is the Technology Integration Matrix (TIM), which looks at five characteristics of the learning environment: Active, Collaborative, Constructive, Authentic and Goal-directed. It also considers the degree to which these characteristics are implemented in the classroom. Whether a teachers uses tablets to access the Khan Academy or use them to collaborate with students across the globe to solve a real-world problem or even something in between, it's possible for you to evaluate where you are now and how you can push your thinking to the next level.

Purpose is vaguely stated and implementation is left pretty much up to each teacher and school to determine. This is an approach that was tried with little success by many schools that thought a laptop for each child would radically improve student learning. Laptopping students rarely enlightens them.

Déja vu Already

In 2001 I watched a district in Michigan put all its effort into buying and installing laptop carts without investing in curriculum planning or professional development. In "The Post Installation Action Plan," I pointed out a number of planning questions LAUSD might have explored before buying so many iPads:

    1. What are the 5-7 learning models most likely to produce learning gains?
    2. What school strategies (such as scheduling and unit building) will work best to make sure the resources are not dominated by the 25% of staff members who are most enthusiastic and prepared?
    3. What are some of the best choices a principal can make regarding strategies to support media specialists and teachers implementing curriculum rich units with iPads?
    4. If the new program is successful, what data could a principal share with the superintendent and other supervisors as evidence of success?
    5. How can clear expectations help to stimulate effective use?
    6. What informal support strategies and resources can be launched and sustained to extend the benefits of introductory professional development sessions?
    7. What school districts have already discovered good ways to move past installation to challenging, standards-based learning with frequent and broadly distributed use?

Some of the text in that article fits the LAUSD situation all too well:

In many schools, new equipment is purchased and rolled into buildings without the staff agreeing in advance upon how, when and why the technology might be used. This lack of definition and clarity allows each individual to do as she or he pleases and leaves the success of the innovation to happenstance.







Illustration used with permission of AmerAsia Imports.

"Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."

Without assessment and clear expectations, participants are free to go about their business as usual. Bandwagons have passed through schools this way for decades, with little discussion or consideration of changes in student performance.

The remedy? The staff builds curriculum rich units involving the effective use of the new tools. If the fifth grade science curriculum calls for every student to do a stream study using handheld devices to analyze data, then all teachers are expected to schedule for the use of equipment and all teachers are expected to do the unit. The principal works with all teachers to make certain they have the resources required to meet the expectations clearly expressed in the curriculum guide.

The True Cost of Ownership

Back in the 1980s, technology companies started promising that their equipment would make our students into great readers, writers and thinkers. Good marketing but false promises. Good teaching will make our students into great readers, writers and thinkers, and equipment might help with that goal.

Thirty years later, they continue to make these claims and foolish school leaders continue to buy equipment without fully funding the professional and program development that might convert promises into realities. Thirty years of wasted money and bad decisions! It is astonishing how long such bad decision-making can persist.

We have known for many years that real change is unlikely unless leaders fund what is called "The True Cost of Ownership." This is not rocket science. Real change is only possible when schools invest in the dozen aspects of sound planning that will result in robust student learning. It is scandalous that leaders of large city districts like LAUSD will squander so much money on poorly planned, ill-considered initiatives, cloaking their folly in rhetoric about equity and 21st century learning.


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