Educational Gimmicks

Remember when the superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District had big plans to give an iPad to all 640,000 of their students?

Well, they have a new superintendent.

“I don’t believe we can afford a device for every student,” Cortines told the Los Angeles Times, “Education shouldn’t become the gimmick of the year.” Cortines added that LAUSD had never made a definitive plan for how teachers would have used the iPads during instruction, nor had it planned how it was going to pay for the tablets over time.

I’m not sure what he means by education “becoming” the gimmick of the year since, for as long as I can remember, we’ve had a new gimmick almost every year. Sometimes more than one.

And that gimmick was often some kind of technology, distributed with vague plans for instructional use, and no sustainable funding plan.

Don’t Blame the iPad. Blame Yourself.

2013 was the year of the iPad in education. Lost of posts and articles declared that the device was going to transform learning and completely alter classroom practice. Plus lists of 23 apps that you must have!

Last year came the backlash, as usually happens with edtech revolutions.

A good deal of it was driven by stories of the poorly designed plan to distribute iPads to all students in Los Angeles1 but there were plenty of other negative voices. Also, a new edtech miracle device was crowned: the Chromebook.

Among the many complaints about the iPad, one of the loudest around here is that the devices are difficult to manage. And by “manage”, of course, we mean control.

There’s a reason why Windows is so beloved by the enterprise, and by IT departments in overly-large school districts that love to use that “enterprise” designation. The machines are relatively easy to clone and lock down. Which also makes many teachers happy as well since every screen is identical and every student gets the same “experience”. Certainly if our head of IT had her way, every computing device in the system would be identical and controlled from HQ.

However, if you’re critical of the iPads you bought because they’re difficult to control, because it’s hard to use them to duplicate the lab experience you love so much, don’t blame Apple.

Blame yourself.

The iPad was always designed as a device for the individual. That’s the way it’s always been marketed, as the most personal of personal computers, for fun, creation, and personal learning. Sure some promotional material shows iPads being used in classrooms by happy kids and teachers, but there’s no reason the sales people would mislead us, right?

If you expect Apple to change the way iPads function just because so many schools are buying them (as I’ve heard more than one IT person declare they must, MUST!), then you haven’t been paying attention. That’s not the company philosophy. Apple decides how the device works and users accept that. They wouldn’t mind selling millions of them to businesses2 but they’re leaving the lockdown control part up to IBM (and who will charge “enterprises” big bucks for it).

Ok, so none of this is meant to be a criticism of the iPad. I know the device has it’s flaws but so does any other computing choice you can name. They just aren’t big enough to inhibit my enjoyment. I love mine and in the almost four years I’ve had one, it has become an essential part of my digital life.

However, if those flaws are insurmountable for you, if iPad doesn’t fit into your model of an instructional devices, just don’t buy them. Get one running one of the many variations of the Android OS. Kindles. Amplify. Windows 8. Try Chromebooks. Forget tablets altogether and stick with a generic Windows PC.3

But you’re looking for the ideal device for instructional computing, the one that will be super easy to manage (aka control), the miracle worker that will turn all of your students into creative, innovative, high-test-scoring, coding, data-generating wonder kids, right?

Just wait. The next revolutionary educational technology should be announced any day now.


  1. Including any variation of the term “hack” in your headline always draws attention.

  2. Make no mistake, all tech companies view education as just another business.

  3. You may even want to consider WHY you’re buying computing devices in the first place. What is the instructional purpose for them?

Lacking Vision in LA

Last spring the Los Angeles County schools voted to buy an iPad for every child in their system. This fall they started handing them to students, confident that they were locked down and could only be used for the designated instructional purposes.

Sure.

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

I don’t know the details beyond what I’ve read on the LA Times site, but there are a couple aspects about this story that go beyond my original rant on this project.

First, it hardly rises to the level of “hacking” when all that was required was deleting the personal profile on the device. And I doubt 300 students discovered the process. More likely it was one or two who then spread the news.

But even worse than a few kids challenging a rather stupid attempt at “security” is the district leadership’s view of how they should be using a connected, powerful computing device. As little more than a very expensive means of delivering standard curriculum materials, stuff that’s probably little changed from the stuff currently on paper.

And that vision (or lack thereof) is driven home by their short term solution to the problem.

By Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Unified officials were weighing potential solutions. One would limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed. All other applications and Internet access would be turned off, according to a district “action plan.”

Or to put it another way,

Stager Tweet

In the end, LA could have paid Amplify to provide heavily locked-down tablets with canned curriculum materials and few worries about empowering children. And done it for far cheaper.

A Superintendent’s Plan for Change

Our new superintendent has been on the job about three months and is experiencing her first opening of school here in the overly-large school district. It’s probably not very different from any other large metropolitan suburban area, except that we are such an incredibly high-performing system1, so this must be very unique for her.

But before things get really rolling, our own “veteran Texas educator”2 decided to layout her “plan for significant change“, which is rather odd since many in this community will tell you the district is already very close to perfect. Grades and test scores never lie.

Anyway, what are these “significant” alterations to be made?

… she wants to close achievement gaps, expand gifted education and provide iPads to every student. She said she will push for later high school start times, would consider supporting charter schools and wants to focus on the needs of the county’s poorest students.

She also says we need to “cut costs and explore new revenue opportunities” and “we’ve got to be more competitive in the marketplace”, which sounds like something you’d hear from a CEO brought in to overhaul a company with a failing business model. Certainly no parallels with American education in that.

As to the broad areas on which she wants to focus, closing the achievement gap has been around forever, speaking to the success of previous superintendents in that area, and is really nothing more than code for getting kids in certain high profile ethnic groups to do better at taking tests. Would be nice if instead, she wants to improve their learning.

We’ve also been going round and round about high school start times, which is largely about finding the money to run more mostly empty buses, and charter schools, something that gets very vocal support from a very, very small part of the community.

Then there’s the matter of giving iPads to every student.3

Although it’s not hard to find stories of district one-to-one tablet programs, Los Angeles County being the highest profile one, I have yet to read about meaningful amounts of resources being devoted to teacher training in support of them. Or about how schools plan to fundamentally change curriculums and classroom practice in recognition of the powerful communications tools each student will now have in their hands.

If our local school board agrees to find the money necessary to pay for just the hardware (and that is a big if), I doubt those issues will be addressed around here either. As with most initiatives featuring technology, our leadership will probably approach this primarily as an IT task, rather than instructional and a significant opportunity to change how and what students learn.

In the end, however, none of the statements quoted in the article lead me to believe our new super will be addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: hyper reliance on standardized testing. As I said in my welcome message to her, we are very good at playing the testing game, and until she does something to break the data addiction suffered by many of our administrators, everything in her “vision” is just tinkering around the fringes.


1 True statement. Just ask our PR office.

2 Which is a damn scary descriptor by itself.

3 Actually, she said tablet. The reporter (or editor) used iPad in the second paragraph instead, probably to improve the link bait.

Our Screwed Up Approach to Instructional Technology

Schools buying iPads is not really news. Unless it’s one of the largest districts in the country, Los Angeles County, spending a boatload of cash, $30 million, on them.

Now I love my iPad, and believe it has great potential as a personal learning device. However, this particular story has many, many elements that illustrate just how screwed up our approach to instructional technology really is.

The Board of Education voted 6 to 0 on Tuesday to approve the contract after hearing senior staff laud Apple’s product as both the best in quality and the least expensive option that met the district’s specifications.

How many teachers and students were involved in setting those specifications? The article doesn’t say but I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that few if any classroom teachers (and probably no kids) had any say in the matter.

More likely, the "specifications" came from the IT department and is based only on the opinions of technicians. Or possibly from a superintendent, based on anecdotes of his children who can do amazing stuff on iPads that he/she extrapolated to every student in the county.

Again based only on speculation (and too many years of experience), I’m betting that $30 million includes no money for professional development, beyond maybe a short here’s-what-button-to-push orientation. Nothing to help teachers understand how to make the best use of these new tools in their instruction. And certainly no consideration of changing curriculum and classroom practice to fit the capabilities of these relatively new devices.

Then there’s the matter of how we pay for all those devices. In this case the money will come from a bond issue, not from continuing funds, which means the iPads purchased this summer will probably be long gone while taxpayers are still paying off the borrowed money.

Rather than building instructional technology into regular budgets, schools and districts seem to constantly fall into this kind of big burst, headline-making, "special occasion" spending. Why do they do it that way? Simple. Administrators, along with many teachers, parents, and other voting members of the community continue to view computers as a nice-to-have extra, something to play with after we finish all that regular school stuff.

But the problem is not just with the people who supported this vote. Those who spoke against the decision also reveal some pretty stupid approaches to making instructional technology decisions.

Hines [senior director of state government affairs for Microsoft] also noted that more businesses still use Microsoft platforms, and that students should be exposed to machines they will encounter in the workplace.

We don’t help kids at all by teaching them specific software, except for the few in specific vocational certification programs. Instead, how about helping kids understand how to use and be productive with any technology they might encounter? The flexibility to adapt to whatever new tools enter that workplace is a far more valuable skill than learning PowerPoint inside and out.

Finally, we arrive at the bottom line to all this.

Officials said they opposed a delay in part because new state and national tests will be taken on computers, and they don’t want Los Angeles students to lack the necessary experience with them.

As we’ve seen close up here in the overly-large school district (and the rest of Virginia), officials like administering standardized tests digitally because the results (aka "data") are available faster and are easier to manipulate. And learning how to generate good data is fast becoming more important than any other skill students might acquire during their time in K12.

Maybe even worth $30 million.