Lessons From the Los Angeles School District iPad Fiasco

| Editorial

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.

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Excellent article John, to which I might add: No matter what the technology, there’s a very strong possibility that students will have a far greater grasp of it than nearly all teachers and administrators, especially when it comes to circumventing security protocols.


“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.”

Therein lies the main crux of the problem.  I see it, literally, every year at the school district I work for.  The administrators, technophilic teachers, and others with authority (school board) get all excited about the idea of using new technology in the classrooms (iPads are a good recent example) so they rush into a plan to purchase all these devices. What they DON’T do is ask why they want them in the first place - other than being “at the leading edge” in classroom technology.  The curriculum should drive all classroom technology decisions, but too often the decision to buy into a type of classroom technology comes first, THEN they spend a bunch of time figuring out how to fit their million dollar purchase into the curriculum - only to find out their million dollar purchase can’t do what the curriculum needs it to do.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I remember calling this in the comments from the day it was announced. I respect those who were optimistic, like John, and debated the merits. But I also took a lot of silly garbage from the resident fan-bots over my negativity. Turns out, I wasn’t negative enough. “Unmitigated disaster” and “colossal waste of funds” doesn’t even begin to describe this. I’ll just say “told you so” and await apologies from the nasty trolls.

Bottom line: school or district “owning” these devices is a mistake. In my high school days in a very affluent district, 1/3 of the kids cut out the large school-provided textbooks (or those they took from other kids) to hold their weed. The mentality of kids doesn’t change.


Did you see there answer to this disaster is all I can call it.
There answer, and again these are the people spending the money, not the teachers or experts who know the technology. There new answer is not to give students iPads. Nope they are going to hand out PC laptops, and Surface 2’s. If the nightmare of what they did with the iPads is not enough. Wait till they try and get these PC’s and Surface 2’s to run what they want. No software for the Surface 2’s, and Windows 8 hell to start. Then there’s all that malware, spyware, and viruses. I see DNS attacks in there future too.
Good job LA, you went from a great solution without doing your homework to a complete nightmare in your future. Because now those same teachers will have to learn anti-virus, malware, and security to keep there education tools running. That will take three quarters of there time just doing that. Oh and then there’s Windows 8. 
The department of Education should fire the bozos that totally waste money like this and causing so much pain for the teachers and students.


I fully agree that having a well targeted plan for iPad use should have been the first priority as it should with any technological device.

As far as testing and screen size. My kids school largely uses netbooks with even smaller screens than the iPad. Kids seem to do fine with their test taking and have been using them since they were in kindergarten. Question usually come one at a time and that really doesn’t require a lot of screen acreage. I would be curious to know what the problem displaying the standardized test was exactly.

My kids also have iPads in the classroom and it works out well because they have what they need on their iPads to complete their lessons. Other lessons are on netbooks. What seems to have worked in our schools case is that things are implemented when a direct benefit of teaching more efficiently can be shown. It is important that the kids get to try things out, the teachers get to see which programs will help them, and both are instructed how to apply the technology in the classroom. It has also been useful to slowly ramp up rather than just dive in with hundreds of devices. If there aren’t enough devices for everything that is going on, a request can be made and can usually be fulfilled in a somewhat timely fashion.


To me this has the smell of Windoze sabotage, which I personally witnessed in local government. If the IT people are diehard Windows fans, they will work hard to end-run, undermine and plain sabotage decisions to implement products made by hated Apple. And they do it as if their jobs depended on it, often because they can’t or don’t want to learn a new operating system. Sometimes I was just astonished by the lack of computing aptitude displayed by some IT dept staff.

Constable Odo

A major fiasco for Apple.  It makes them look incompetent in the news media.  I’m not going to speculate what exactly went wrong because it seemed that those iPads only needed better security measures to stop them from being hacked.  Too late.  Apple loses on this one high-profile project and the fallout will stay around a long time.

Tony Ramirez

The District simply did not set up their iPads carefully, maybe because they did not have enough staff or perhaps it was for reasons that ibuck mentions above. Students could have been prevented from deleting district apps.  Apple provides a restriction that makes it impossible for someone to delete an app without the appropriate passcode! It’s right there under restrictions on the iPad. 

It is not too late for more technicians and more teacher training to turn the District technology plan into a success.  However, when the District offered a “training rate” of pay that was less than half what teachers usually earn, few teachers participated.  I only hope that LAUSD can learn from these mistakes or it will be doomed to more Fiascos.


For a contract this big and significant, Apple should have dedicated full-time personnel to helping implement this roll-out.
Someone at Apple should get fired.

And that someone should have had the guts to insist to the school district that a “tablet” was an inappropriate device for the job in the first place.  The gleam of the deal was too big.

I know that I would not want to be a student on a device half day long without having a physical keyboard (somehow, someway).  At the very least, a keyboard paired to the iPad.  Better for me would always be a laptop.

Big goof by Apple (after YEARS of trying to make inroads vs the other PCs).  Come on, Apple…...name the names of the people responsible!

Timothy Miley

The IPad is a great Tool for education, but it takes a lot of training with apps to use it the best way!!! Teachers already have a full plate with the state and some are afraid of technology. Too much time is being spent on hardware decisions, when it is the software that makes the difference. Apple has the most apps for education, but it is hard to know the best ones!!! My experience tells me the wrong people are making technology decisions and a lot of these roll outs are failing!!!

Thomas Burkholder

So, speaking as a technologist with 20 years of experience, and as a father of a kid going into the public school system in the next couple of years, as a former Apple employee myself, and as a huge fan of Apple products… here’s a heretical thought: the best solution to every problem is not necessarily more technology.

Frank Lowney 1

The sad thing is that there really was potential for good here but both LAUSD and Apple dropped the ball. Apple said, “we’re done” when the initial contract was signed and acted as if there could be no other issues of importance, LAUSD administration did likewise telling subordinates to, “handle it.”
There’s an astute old saying that goes:
“If you want me to be there at the landing, better in code me in the takeoff.”
Neither party did that.

Frank Lowney 1

No editing opportunity:
“If you want me to be there at the landing, better include me in the takeoff.”

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