Lessons From the Los Angeles School District iPad Fiasco

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) learned some tough lessons with its iPad rollout. The L.A. Times told the story, but there is much to ponder in scenarios like this.


On June 29, Howard Blume told the story. "LAUSD shifts gears on technology for students." In short, there were severe problems with the rollout of US$30 millon worth of iPads, and the result was a withdrawal to a laptop environment for the students.

Mr. Blume wrote, "The rollout of the iPads last fall at 47 schools, however, was beset by challenges, controversy and some mistakes... Students immediately deleted security filters so they could freely browse the Internet. The district recalled the devices at several schools and some students never saw them again."

The article doesn't go into great detail about curriculum issues, but reading between the lines, I got the feeling that not a lot of thought was put into matching the capabilities of the iPad with the curriculum goals. One strong hint is cited from Carolyn McKnight, principal of the East Los Angeles Performing Arts Magnet, who was quoted: "Students were more comfortable on the laptop because of the amount of writing and the size of the screen," she said. "It was really hard to see the whole problem on the iPad."

She's referring to the size of the iPad display and how it displayed standardized tests.

I have seen this kind of process so many times before, but instead of critiquing the LAUSD, I thought it better to look at how this state of affairs often occurs, in general, in similar situations, based on my own experience.

How Failure Becomes an Option

1. Power. The first thing that happens in situations like the above is that those who have the power to make the financial decision are the least technically trained. Decisions become a matter of both politics and wishful thinking about how a positive outcome will be achieved. Delegating authority to get a job done (but not the responsibility) is seen as something that relinquishes power, and that always damages the end result.

Without a deep technical, professionally executive decision about how things will be managed, success becomes a matter of something thrown out there, hoping that the bureaucracy and dedicated staff will pull it together. I seldom happens that way.

2. Expertise. Conversely, the teachers and administrators who have the most expertise on the matter, from both an educational and technical aspect, end up having little say about how the money will be spent. As a result, things that need to get done, based on pedagogical experience, are rushed, omitted, or just plain refused by management. This is the same management who expects success to be a natural (rather than an unnatural) result of their own preservation of control.

In a situation like that cited above in Los Angeles, there is a need to assess how the capabilities of the device will be matched to the curriculum goals, but there's seldom time or money for that. Nor are the senior teachers brought into the decision cycle for spending with respect to curriculum design or testing and evaluation.

3. Pilot Programs. Any project with millions of dollars at stake, should start with a pilot project. For example, teachers who volunteer, and there are always some eager and technical teachers who want to get involved, should run a test on small scale. A pilot program can answer important questions. Does the curriculum require a physical keyboard? Is the display large enough? Are there appropriate apps and resources from say, iTunes U, that can be effective. Most importantly, does using, say, an iPad improve standardized test scores compared to those not in the pilot program?

4. Apple Technologies. Apple provides tools to help properly provision iPads so that they cannot be hacked and inappropriate activity can be logged and reported. Those managing the project, along with IT's cheerful support, need to have expert counsel on technical issues such as provisioning, security, privacy and upgrades. All this material is available from both Apple and expert Apple writers and consultants.

5. Teacher Training. K-12 teachers work hard. Often, they are impoverished in finance and spirit. Many don't have time or resources for extensive personal learning and expertise. Writers who cover Apple spend every waking minute learning about Apple products and writing tips, but the average teacher is too absorbed in the daily work to become an Apple expert.

Then, one day, an administrator says that they'll be required to use iPads (or some other new device) to teach the students. They're lost. They're overworked. They're demoralized. The results are predictable. And, of course, there's never enough political astuteness by those in power to prepare the teachers for a major technology migration, so the teachers naturally resist. Failure is built into the process from the ground up by buying hardware but not having the teacher's buy-in.


Throughout my career, in education and government, I've seen these effects. Purchase authority is exercised by those who have the least technical expertise. Those who have the expertise have no say in the process. Piecemeal test projects fail to generate the desired political clout and glory and are bypassed, and those at the bottom are burdened beyond belief by projects they had little say in, no control over nor adequate preparation and training.

I don't claim that the LAUSD had all these problems. However, reading about their experience reminded me of the kinds of difficulties I've seen in my own career. Perhaps the driving issue on all this is that in modern day American technology, those who most seek enduring power are those people least able to exercise deep technical judgment, whether it's an iPad in the classroom or a billion dollar weapons program.

It's a malady without end in sight.


Teacher and kids with iPad via Shutterstock.