One thing about cautionary tales -- the cautions just seem to proliferate as time marches on. That certainly seems to be the case with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s increasingly fraught involvement with education by iPad.
In the latest development documented by my indefatigable colleagues Howard Blume and Stephen Ceasar, it turns out that the district costs for the software on its thousands of student-friendly tablets could be $60 million a year higher than anticipated.
That’s because the licenses for the educational programs installed on the devices expire after three years. Originally, the district was led to believe that once the programs were paid for, they belonged to LAUSD, lasting “as long as the iPads themselves,” as Blume and Ceasar write. But no. As LAUSD board member Monica Ratliff extracted from a district staffer, “at the end of three years, that content is going to disappear or we’re going to be violating something by attempting to use this content.”
The most obvious lesson to be learned from this is the necessity of dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s when you contract for any goods or services with a vendor. That sort of fiasco can happen whether you’re a public body purchasing chalk, floor wax or electricity.
But what’s more important is that this belated discovery that software commonly isn’t sold but leased (anyone who owns a computer running on Microsoft Windows and using Microsoft Word should know this already), gives the lie to a fundamental rationale put forth for moving from books to computer tablets. That rationale is that books go out of date but software is infinitely upgradable.
Yes, but at a price. The question is whether that price is worth it, and the answer in this case is no. At issue is the tablet-based English and math curriculum, which is hardly subject to cutting-edge changes. As I’ve pointed out in the past, the text of, say, “Romeo and Juliet” has been pretty much locked down since 1709. Even if you’re inclined to teach by multimedia, the Bax Luhrmann MTV-style movie version came out in 1996 and isn’t likely to get upgrading unless it’s for 3-D. (And who needs that?) And it isn’t as though high school calculus needs rethinking, even with new discoveries in particle physics.
The aspect of technology-based teaching that never gets the attention it deserves is the cost of ownership. Tablets need to be fixed or replaced, for hundreds of dollars a shot. And as the LAUSD has discovered, software isn’t forever. Think of the teachers and real pedagogical tools that could be paid for with $60 million a year, and how much added value they’d provide to students.
Here’s a question for LAUSD Supt. John Deasy, who has pronounced the iPad program “an astonishing success.” Does he still think so? Feel free to deliver your answer via iPad-compatible digital video, Mr. D.