Apodaca: L.A. schools’ iPad fiasco should serve as lesson

As our local schools continue to experiment with ways to utilize technology, they are receiving a big lesson in how not to do it from our giant neighbor to the north.

I’m talking about you, Los Angeles Unified. We really must thank for providing such a sterling example of not-to-be-emulated dysfunction. Your boneheaded moves would be comical if they weren’t so costly.


Here’s a quick overview of LAUSD’s iPad fiasco so far:

The district recently began rolling out its $1-billion initiative (yes, that’s billion with a “b”) to equip each of its more than 600,000 students with an iPad within a year. So far, nearly 50,000 schoolchildren have received their iPads.


Faster than you can say, “Did you really think this through?” problems began emerging. Just one week after receiving their iPads, hundreds of high school students reportedly hacked through security to reach sites such as Facebook and YouTube, prompting school officials to halt home use of the tablets while they figured out what to do next.

The hacking episode led to another revelation. School officials acknowledged that issues of liability hadn’t yet been settled. In other words, there was no clear plan for what to do or who to hold responsible should an iPad be lost, stolen or damaged.

A few days later, LAUSD reported that it was attempting to find 71 missing iPads.

Wait, it gets better. Turns out none of the LAUSD geniuses anticipated the need for students to be able to type on a keyboard instead of a touch screen. When they belatedly figured that one out, the district faced substantial additional costs for the keyboards.


The problems led LAUSD last week to begin confiscating iPads from some high school students. Meanwhile, some teachers reported problems connecting to the Internet in their classrooms.

As public outrage over the mess grew, LAUSD Supt. John Deasy defended the iPad project in a letter published last week by the Los Angeles Times. Technology is a critical factor in preparing students for the future, he wrote. He referred to the problems encountered as “glitches” and maintained that the program would continue.

In a subsequent interview, Deasy called the project “an astounding success.” Providing equal access to technology for all students is a civil rights issue, he maintained.

True enough, but the rush to get technology into our schools has raised other worrisome questions.


One area of concern is whether many schools, in trying to adapt to 21st-century technology, are losing sight of the fundamentals of good education. Snazzy new gadgets, for all their potential, are still merely tools — ones that are worthless absent strong curriculum and talented, well-trained teachers.

Whether it’s delivered by way of a state-of-the-art tablet or hand-me-down textbook, it’s content and competence that matter most.

The other big worry is financial. So far no one has completely answered the question of how schools can keep investing in up-to-date technology without risking going broke.

Last week, tiny Pacific Grove Unified School District in Monterey County said it came up with a creative way to keep paying for technology upgrades: short-term bonds approved by voters every few years, as needed, that would be dedicated to technology purchases.

Fortunately, here in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, a cautious, pragmatic approach to technology has largely prevailed. Rather than making wholesale investments in pricey Apple products, for instance — for which the money doesn’t exist, at any rate — technology purchases made through various funding sources have mainly been of less expensive netbooks and low-end laptops.

When it comes to educational uses, “I just haven’t seen a model out there that is worth the money you put into an iPad,” said Jenith Mishne, NMUSD’s director of educational technology.

And although it’s a long-term goal of the district to ensure that all students have access to mobile computers, a more incremental approach remains the only practical option. Funding sources are often one-time deals, so the question remains: “How do we make this sustainable?” said Asim Babovic, assistant director of informational technology for the district.

“We want to have a solution, even if it takes a few years longer,” he said.

One example of that, said Alan Engard, director of information technology, is the district’s effort to bring wireless access to every classroom on every campus, which is expected to be completed within about 14 months — something LAUSD apparently failed to do before rolling out the iPads.

“We really want to make sure we have a strong foundation before we put a house on top of it,” Engard said.

Meanwhile, the biggest piece of a strong foundation — training and development programs designed to show educators how to make the most of technology’s potential — are bound to have uneven results. While some principals and teachers have embraced experimentation and welcomed additional training, others have been more resistant to change.

“That’s one of the biggest issues we face,” Mishne said.

To be sure, there are plenty of difficult issues and obstacles our schools need to resolve in the continuing quest to meld technology with education. There will be a learning curve, and mistakes will be made along the way.

But LAUSD’s iPad screwup could well become a case study for the history books in how to get it utterly, ridiculously — hopefully not irredeemably — wrong.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.