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L.A. Unified stakes reputation on iPad program

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There is more at stake than test scores in the effort to provide iPads to 600,000 Los Angeles Unified students in time for the state's upcoming switch to online achievement exams.

If my inbox is a measure of public opinion, the district's credibility is on the line in ways that may haunt the school system for years to come.

My column last week on the glitch-plagued iPad rollout drew criticism from readers who said I unfairly blamed class warfare for resistance to Supt. John Deasy's plan to give every student in the predominantly poor and minority district a $678 tablet.

Opposition to the billion-dollar project is based not on the color or income level of students, they said, but on a lack of confidence in both the district and the device.

"Taking my money, which was supposed to go to improving schools' infrastructure, to buy the iPads completely broke my trust in the LAUSD," wrote Sara Aboulhosn, a Westchester parent who is angry that construction bonds are funding the technology project and that less expensive laptop options weren't considered.

"As a result, Supt. Deasy has completely lost my vote the next time teachers need a raise or the schools being fixed."

That was a common complaint.

Readers also weighed in with concerns that iPads will expose Web-surfing youngsters to predators online and amount to little more in the classroom than fragile and expensive toys.

"Much less expensive and more suitable products exist to bring technology contact, exposure, skills and productivity to students," wrote DePaul University computer expert James Janossy.

He suggested the Raspberry Pi, a $25 credit-card-sized computer board that can be equipped for school or home use for about $100. "Or a PC/Windows 8 laptop sells for less than $300 retail... get two for the price of one iPad," Janossy said.

What's wrong with laptops? was the question embedded in many readers' comments. They were the gold standard in classroom technology until iPads grabbed the spotlight.

"What evidence or research does LAUSD have to show that giving an iPad to a kid, rich or poor, increases learning?" asked Meena Rao, a middle school math teacher for 25 years. "These devices are so new that no studies have been done yet to know the answer."

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Any project this big, expensive and groundbreaking is bound to court controversy.

Give the district credit, at least, for getting out in front of the education pack. Only a handful of districts have embraced iPads-for-all and none on the scale of L.A. Unified.

In Manhattan Beach, private funds help provide iPads for every middle school pupil. The devices were supposed to lighten backpacks by replacing textbooks, said Patricia Dulong, the mother of two tablet-toting students.

But her children's textbooks aren't yet online, the iPads' education apps aren't advanced enough and teachers haven't figured out how to build lessons around the devices, said Dulong, a former computer programmer.

She blames preoccupation with technology for a slide this year in the high-achieving district's middle school scores on state exams. "Confusion in the classroom. Too much time spent playing games on the iPad instead of studying," she wrote.

Maybe those are just the growing pains that innovation requires.

But I'd be less cynical about iPads for class work if educators could explain their advantage without waxing all rhapsodic about tech integration or accessing content.

I asked Trevor Gerzen, who manages technology for a La Jolla private school, to explain the fascination with tablets. He said iPads are great in the classroom because they are flexible, portable and so easy to use, they make learning feel like fun.

Even young students can lace science reports with photos they have shot, videos they have taken and links to online research. They can monitor their own progress in math. Or create interactive iBooks to share with children in other countries.

"Using the iPad as some sort of 'let's save the inner-city kids' campaign is missing the point entirely," Gerzen said. "I don't see it as a luxury. I see it as an opportunity to add enriching content to anyone's life that you can't get anywhere else."

But it only works if teachers are enthusiastic and well-trained, parents are on board, and students see it as more than a way to check out videos on YouTube or play racing car games.

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After the bad publicity about the rollout, L.A. Unified officials created a website to promote the iPad project and the school board is meeting in two weeks to resolve the issues that have complicated the process.

They will have to deal with concerns about logistics that can't be papered over:

Thousands of district families can't afford Internet access that enables iPad apps at home. Students in other districts have reported being jumped, threatened or robbed of the tablets coming and going to school. And one program elsewhere, financed by charitable donations, was scuttled when some parents peddled their children's devices for drugs.

Board members will have a hard time winning public support for the program if they don't demonstrate the very traits that iPads are supposed to inspire: curiosity, collaboration, leadership and creativity.

The district is aiming high on this. It's not about teaching computer skills, but changing the way students see themselves; giving them the tools to become creators, not just consumers.

"It's about ways to open the world to students," said project director Bernadette Lucas, a former principal of Melrose Elementary, where students have been using laptops and iPads for almost four years.

Lucas isn't suggesting that iPads are the magic cure for all that ails the classroom. She thinks there's room for a healthy debate on tablets-versus-laptops.

But she believes it's the district's role to push for uncomfortable change:

"With any kind of cultural movement there are going to be naysayers," she said. "This might be a challenge for the public to digest. But I've seen what can happen when children get their little hands on [iPads] in the classroom.... And it's our responsibility to highlight the positive, so people will understand."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

@SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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