When our principal first told us about the iPads, I tried to resist skepticism. But my experience with schools and technology made that hard.
When I began teaching in the early 1990s there were no computers anywhere in the school. Not in the office and certainly not in any classrooms. Most of the kids in my class had never used a computer much less been on the internet. Shockingly, our school district allotted no funds for our school to acquire computers of any kind. Later that school year my principal and I created phony purchase orders in order to procure a few 486 PCs. It was fraud and it was money well spent. So was the money we fraudulently spent on a phone line to my classroom for dial-up internet. Many students developed an affinity for writing and for research from those machines. We started a school newspaper. Eventually donated computers filled my classroom. There are students who went to college and became professionals — including at least one published author — because of those donations.
About four years after that, our school received 120 new computers and a T-1 line to deliver ethernet connectivity to the internet for our students. The school was overwhelmed by these machines. A computer lab was created out of a classroom but no one knew quite what to do with all these machines and no one offered us even a part-time IT professional or any other resources to adequately protect those PCs from viruses or even to prevent students from downloading and viewing all manner of human and other animal pornography. No one — at our school or within the district or state — took responsibility for what happened to those computers and within a few years they were garbage.
This self-defeating exercise has been repeated, on a smaller scale, numerous times since then. So why wouldn’t we be wary of this new scheme?
Superintendent John Deasy’s plan was to first give the iPads to students in the most underserved communities in the city and ours was among that first wave. In the summer of 2013 teachers and admins were asked to attend trainings where we were shown some of what could be done with these iPads. No instructions for how to integrate them into our teaching. That was left for us to figure out. It was not unreasonable to be asked, as professional educators, to integrate new technologies into our instruction but it all seemed a bit haphazard. This was supposed to be a sea change in educating the children of our city and we were each in our own row boat. Everyone was making it up as they went along. We were encouraged to innovate on our own and then share what we were doing. Collaboration was going to sweep the district’s teachers and students into the 21st century. Of course, it might have been wise to initiate this collaboration with teachers BEFORE committing more than a billion dollars to this idea.
Still, we hoped to create a new kind of urban education with this massive iPad purchase. Teachers were no longer bloviating experts. We were now inspiring facilitators of critical thinking. The digital device in each student’s hand could access all knowledge ever known (not quite but certainly as much as our students were expected to learn) and our role was to help them realize how to access the glorious endless supply of electronic enlightenment and teach them how to make sense of it.
Much of what went wrong has been well documented. iPads were distributed with much fanfare and almost immediately schools discovered that the security software meant to prevent students from improperly using the iPads—researching porn or cyber bullying or just posting anything on social media—were easily defeated by clever and knowledgeable students and they were willing to share their insights with others. iPads were confiscated. They were locked up. Better security was installed but that took weeks. Meanwhile, schools were told to distribute iPads in the morning and collect them at the end of the day, a logistical nightmare for middle schools and high schools where students start the day in one room and end in another.
Students did not have their personal iPads to take home with them until half the school year was over and by then it felt less like an educational revolution and more like another top-down procurement. Those of us who’d planned to fully integrate the devices into our instruction were thrown by the delays. Those teachers less interested in any revolution had an excuse to stick with their old methods.
Thousands of games were available for download and gave students new and better forms of distraction than ever before, and iPads in the classroom began to normalize the distractions of cell-phones. Students became more engaged and accountable for their own knowledge. Their intellectual curiosities became research activities. Rather than ask the teacher what they didn’t know, they accessed internet sources and we began to teach them how to evaluate those sources. They also texted each other and their friends and their parents and tweeted nonsense and took silly filtered photos of themselves and each other and their teachers. I got to see what I’d look like as a dog and as a cat and as a woman and if my face were melted like a candle.
Some of us saved paper by getting students to read things as PDFs on screens and annotate the texts using one of the note-taking apps. Students made video presentations and powerpoints and typed papers using the iPads.
They didn’t damage or lose many of them and no one stole anyone else’s, at least not where I work. And no one was mugged for theirs going home. They lost most of the chargers and a lot of the earbuds — and even more of the earbuds broke.
The following year our students were issued newer iPads with similar results. By then John Deasy was under investigation and the whole technological storm had started to dissipate. Soon Deasy resigned and the new super, Ramon Cortines, froze the accounts. Apple paid back a small fraction of what it had overcharged the district and we were left with hundreds of iPads and no budget or support, essentially told to keep using them as long as we could manage, to get something out of them.
We’re still at it. With almost no chargers left — the storage carts used as charging stations — and students required to supply their own earbuds. We have but a few replacements left but we keep issuing them and trying to get a return on the investment. Soon we won’t have enough for every student but they are fast becoming an outdated technology and soon no student may want one. Many already refuse them. Or leave them in their lockers all year, preferring to use their more powerful and convenient smart phones. Kids leave them around like an old jacket with no fear that anyone will want to steal them.
One day, I suppose, we will have to figure out a way to dispose of them. We don’t have sufficient storage space in a building designed without input from teachers or admins.
Was this iPad initiative a failure?
Only if it turns out we might have really needed that money for the construction of schools and the repair or replacement of existing buildings or for whatever else the money was supposed to be.allocated.
I still remember the excitement in our building when the district and the corporations first rolled them out.
A guy from Apple was in my classroom. He’d brought his son who was about 10. He seemed to want the boy to see this grand moment of photo ops with disadvantaged teenagers being given the keys to their future.
Many of my students responded favorably to the gesture. They were shocked and inspired that anyone wanted to give them something — even temporarily — that was this valuable, this powerful. It showed them that the rich and powerful white people cared about them and wanted them to succeed.
It might have had a profound impact if we hadn’t had to snatch them right out of their hands after the photos were taken. But maybe it did last. At least for a few of those kids. Gestures of kindness and generosity — signs that someone cares about them — they almost always have a lasting impact. Of course, any student now sitting in a crumbling school building in need of repairs or replacement is getting the opposite message — that no one gives a damn — and I guess the important question is whether more students received the positive we-want-you-to-have-an-iPad message or the you’re-not-worth-a-decent-place-to-learn message.
I don’t know how much money Apple made off LAUSD. Or how much Pearson made. Apple has since donated 17 employees and one hundred million dollars to help kids in our district.
Deasy got a $60,000 severance package — about what an average teacher in our district makes each year to teach 200 students a day.
The students where I teach keep graduating — most of them — and most keep getting into college, some of them into really prestigious colleges. I can’t say how much they are benefiting from their share of the 1.3 billion dollars worth of iPads (or whatever the final price tag was). What I can say is that more and more of my hard-working high-achieving students can’t figure out how to pay for college.