Wednesday, January 14, 2015

An Education in Technology

A couple of years ago, the well-degreed and ostensibly bright guy hired to run the Los Angeles Unified School District said he wanted to give all district students iPads to help them learn things. The plan failed spectacularly because the students already knew things -- like how to get around the security settings that were supposed to keep games and time-wasting websites off limits -- and because the well-degreed and ostensibly bright guy and his well-degreed and ostensibly bright staff didn't know things, like whether or not their own facilities had wireless networks that would handle the load.

Monday's Los Angeles Times offers up a report detailing just how epic the failure was, and in a town known for producing epic failures (Waterworld, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, etc.), the LAUSD iPad project can proudly hold its own.

The cracks began when the superintendent pushing the program went the Apple route instead of looking at lower-cost tablets, many of which can run free software especially designed for educational use. Yes, I use the more expensive Apple products myself, but I spend my own money on my stuff rather than nick your wallet, the way a publicly-funded agency like a school system does. It continued when the purchases were made even before any real plan existed on how to use them. Or how to evaluate which ways of using them worked and which didn't.

And the FBI later became very interested in just how the contracts were awarded, and is still perusing them and musing upon communications concerning them. The well-degreed and ostensibly bright guy who ran the LAUSD and pushed the program is now a consultant for an academy that offers training for school district leaders. Rumors that his course is called "1.3 Billion Ways to Get Invited to Leave Your Job" are unfounded.

The program ended after the pilot phase, or else it would have cost the full $1.3 billion.  I found a figure online showing the average Los Angeles school teacher salary is $59,000, so if it's right the district could have hired a thousand new teachers -- and paid them for nearly 20 years, if we assume their salaries go up over time -- with that money. Does anyone outside of Cupertino, CA, think that a thousand new teachers in a school system would make less of a difference than every kid having his or her own iPad? And that's probably not fair to the folks who work at Apple, because I think they're smart enough to figure out teachers matter more than tech.

On the one hand, LAUSD's iPad program was actually a cut above a lot of public education calls for more money, because it had a specific purpose and the money would be spent directly on students. Many other requests to raise public education spending just offer blanket figures and don't have much of a spending plan beyond raising everyone's salary -- which means the increased funds often wind up hiring a couple of new assistant superintendents or or assistant principals instead of helping teachers or classroom instruction.

On the other hand, it's just a bigger, louder and shinier version of those same calls for more money, because it wasn't tailored to any real need other than the LAUSD administration's belief that every kid in the district should have an iPad. Did those kids need an iPad (or other kinds of tech)? What would they do with them when they got them? How would their teachers use the iPads for teaching? The LAUSD essentially said, "We'll have to get back to you on that. In the meantime, here's the tab -- thanks for picking it up."

Even I can learn a lesson from that trick. Show me what you want to do with the money and how it'll make a difference, and I'll start writing checks. Just tell me you need it and you'll explain what it's for later, and we can talk again when it gets to be "later."

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