What You Should Know This Week

LAUSD’s iPad Troubles, Continued. Each week, Educating Modern Learners will pick one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and help put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). This week (the week of August 25), Audrey Watters looks at the LAUSD’s cancellation of its multimillion dollar contract with Apple.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”

The Los Angeles School District’s iPad saga continues.

Late last week, several LA news organizations obtained and published emails between LAUSD, Apple, and Pearson officials. These emails reveal that Superintendent John Deasy began meeting with these companies to discuss the hardware/curriculum purchase almost a year before the multimillion dollar contract went out to bid.

The district agreed last year to purchase 700,000 iPads — one for every student in the district. The devices would come pre-loaded with curriculum created by Pearson. The expected cost of this project, including upgrades to the district’s WiFi: over $1 billion.

But following the release of the emails — alongside a highly critical report from the district technology committee, Deasy has cancelled the contract with Apple. The district will reopen the bidding process.

According to The LA Times, the committee report found “that the initial rules for winning the contract appeared to be tailored to the products of the eventual winners — Apple and Pearson — rather than to demonstrated district needs. The report found that key changes to the bidding rules were made after most of the competition had been eliminated under the original specifications.”

Although Deasy insists that there have been no improprieties (and an investigation earlier this year by the district attorney did not lead to any criminal charges), the emails released late last week paint a different and fuller picture.

The emails show that Deasy met with then Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino in May 2012, and after that meeting he and other officials exchanged emails about using Pearson materials as the district transitioned to meet the new Common Core State Standards. (One of those officials: LAUSD’s head of curriculum Jaime Aquino, who’d previously been an executive at a Pearson subsidiary. Aquino quit his job at LAUSD abruptly last year.)

Deasy then met with Apple in July 2012, pitching them on the prospective deal. Afterwards he emailed Pearson that Apple “was fully committed to being a partner.”

The emails show one Pearson sales rep questioning why there needed to be an RFP at all, but the RFP was issued in March 2013. The contract for the “Common Core Technology Project” — with Apple supplying the hardware and Pearson supplying the curriculum — was approved by the LAUSD board in July 2013.

This is just the latest…

The LAUSD iPad initiative has been plagued with controversy from the start.

Many were concerned that funds from a bond measure to pay for construction and repair of facilities were being used to pay for technology. Others complained that the district had agreed to purchase iPads that were already out-of-date (Apple announced an upgraded model shortly after the deal was announced). They also noted that the Pearson curriculum came with a three-year license — that is the district didn’t “own” the textbooks and would have to purchase the materials again when the licenses expired.

Furthermore, many teachers and students found, once they had their iPads in hand, that their schools did not have adequate Internet infrastructure to get everyone online. When students at several district high schools received their iPads in the Fall of 2013, they quickly found ways around the security features. Although described as “hacking” by the media, it was more a matter of students wanting to use the devices to listen to music and watch movies. The district threatened then to forbid students from taking their iPads home and said it would lock the devices down further, making only the Pearson curriculum accessible.

But as KPCC reports, there are significant problems there with that as well:

A year after the purchase, the software on L.A. Unified iPads still doesn’t include many of the simulations, games and interactive tools promised. Officials gave Pearson until November to deliver the finished product.

Also, California education officials have only approved Pearson’s math courses for grades Kindergarten through eighth grade. And the state found errors in every grade, from simple problems, like typos, to bigger issues, like learning standards that were not correctly applied.

District emails show teachers complained to administrators about web links leading to nowhere, menus that wouldn’t pull-up and other frustrations.

“Each child today alone, not counting yesterday, had to log in at least two times,” Hyde Park elementary school teacher Thuong Ha wrote to administrators in October 2013.

One student had to keep entering his password every five minutes because the system kept crashing. She calculated her students at Young Empowered Scholars Academy los 46 minutes of instructional time that day.

“Tell Pearson that we are abandoning their digital books for utter negligence of consideration for end users,” she wrote.

The LAUSD initiative was supposed to showcase education technology: the promise of putting computing devices in the hands of every student in the second largest school district in the US. Instead, it has demonstrated that, 25 years after some of first 1-to-1 laptop initiatives, schools still struggle to get the implementation right.

And backroom deals among vendors certainly do not help.

Image credits: psyberartist

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