L.A. Schools Commit to $1 Billion for Free Student iPads—Then Decide to Add Keyboards

Friday, September 06, 2013
iPad with virtual keyboard (photo: Reuters)

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which is spending $500 million to give each of its 640,000 students a free iPad and another $500 million on wi-fi, has decided it would be prudent to add another item to the shopping cart—keyboards.

The decision to add another potential $38 million to its tab just a few months after making a commitment to spend voter-approved school construction bond money on the computers raised questions about whether LAUSD had thought through the ramifications of its decision. The touchscreen wireless tablets have virtual keyboards and technically don’t need external keyboards to function, but it was decided that they would facilitate extensive writing and may be necessary for taking tests.

According to the Los Angeles Times, educators envisioned the computers would make testing easier for the new Common Core, just adopted by California and 44 other states as a replacement for current standardized testing regimens. Forty-seven schools should have the first $30 million batch of iPads by the end of the month, and the rest should be distributed by December 2014.

The iPads will come loaded with software, including some digital textbooks that the district hopes might reduce its book costs. A custom app will allow students and parents to view upcoming lunch menus at school. It will also provide access to online applications for meals financial assistance, as well as nutrition data and allergen lists.

Observers have raised questions about maintenance of the computers, which will be taken home by the students, software and hardware upgrades in the future, theft, integration of the iPads with school curricula, tech support and teacher training. And then there’s the question of what kind of distraction might result from having a roomful of networked kids surfing the Internet, engaging in social media and playing games while the teacher intones words of wisdom to the class.

Many of these issues hampered the school district in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, which bought iPads for its students last year, although many consider the venture a success. Beefed up filters were added this year to clamp down on social media access and instant messaging and the iPads are put away in class when not needed for specific tasks. District officials acknowledged that Internet connectivity wasn’t good enough, there weren’t enough e-text books and applications and teachers needed more training.

The decision by the school board in June to buy the iPads was initially criticized by the teachers union, which asked for a delay while questioning whether the district shouldn’t be more focused on rehiring needed staff and teachers. Microsoft officials argued for a small pilot program to test out multiple computing platforms, including theirs, rather than signing a big contract with Apple.

There was some criticism of schools Superintendent John Deasy, a prime mover behind the deal, because of his ownership of Apple stock and participation in an Apple promo prior to the bidding process.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

In School iPad Project, L.A. Might Need to Tap Funding for Keyboards (by Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times)

An iPad for Every Student? What Los Angeles School District Is Thinking (by Daniel B. Wood, Christian Science Monitor)

Wired for Learning: Students Will Find More iPads, Apps This Year (by Allison T. Williams, Daily Press)

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