The sound of ka-ching rang loud and clear at Apple headquarters when the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a $1 billion initiative to place an iPad in the hands of each of the more than 600,000 students in the nation's second largest school district. But while Apple counts its coin, the district is learning a hard lesson in security and how technology can create as many problems as it solves.
Within a week after the year-long rollout started last month, 300 high school students managed to hack the security software meant to keep their attention on schoolwork instead of surfing the web, according to the Los Angeles Times. They didn't have to be tech wizards to do it. They only had to erase their personal profiles when they got home and they were free to socialize on Facebook, watch YouTube and listen to tunes on Pandora.
The student mischief sent the district into a tizzy. Students at the three schools where the hacking occurred had to turn in their tablets while pupils in the remaining dozen schools that handed out iPads were no longer allowed to take them home.
Meanwhile, the school district is pondering what to do. It's still deciding whether a tougher security app would solve the problem or whether to set up the tablet, so it can only access the curriculum software when taken off the school network.
While thinking about security, the district has been blindsided by a host of other problems. Teachers have complained of not being able to connect to the Internet in classrooms and of having trouble getting all the tablets to work for all students at once.
In addition, the district hasn't decided whether parents should be responsible for the roughly $700 iPads when they are lost or broken. Considering that nearly 18% of the families in the district are at the poverty level, I would guess that a lot of parents would tell their kids to leave the iPads at school, rather than risk shelling out hundreds of dollars.
As if the hardware snafus aren't enough, the curriculum software from Pearson isn't getting any high marks.
"A mediocre teacher with little training, and with a shiny new textbook, could do better than what I saw," former teacher and school board member David Tokofsky told the Times.
Meanwhile, school Superintendent John Deasy, who was featured as a pitchman in an iPad commercial, is in denial. He insists that the initiative he pushed hard for is right on track. "It's an astonishing success," he told the Los Angeles Times.
What's astonishing is the runaway idealism driving Deasy to spend $500 million in school bond money for the iPads and software and an equal amount for wiring the campuses.
To Deasy, putting iPads in the hands of kids in a school system of mostly low-income families and a dropout rate of 20% is a "civil rights issue."
"My goal is to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had. And I'd like to do that as quickly as possible," he said, according to the Times.
Sadly, Deasy's rush to level the playing field between rich and poor by replacing textbooks with technology won't change the lives of poor kids. The obstacles they face in trying to climb out of poverty can't be wiped away with an iPad.
The security fiasco lifted the curtain off an expensive and overly ambitious initiative that was launched with too little public discussion, teacher training and parent education. On top of all that, it's ludicrous to parade technology as a cure for poverty.
"When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that."
Lets hope L.A. scales back its ambitions before too much money is wasted.