It was almost sad last June when the Los Angeles Unified School District announced its intention to buy an iPad for every one of its more than 600,000 students in a deal valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The scheme carried more than a whiff of desperation—education bureaucrats overseeing a school district where fewer than half of enrolled students can read or do math at grade level evidently thinking (hoping? praying?) that a technological deus ex machina would save the day.
It’s unlikely to. For one, the problems facing schools go much deeper—and are different in character—than a supposed dearth of touch-screen technology. Moreover, if there’s one thing that kids today don’t need to learn in school, it’s how to use computers and tablets. Today’s youth are so-called digital natives—they grow up surrounded by technology, and learn to use computers, smartphones, and tablets almost through natural acquisition, as they do, say, their native language. Indeed, there’s little doubt that most Los Angeles students are more adept at using iPads than their teachers.
And it’s not as if there’s a precedent for such a move working. For instance, in South Korea, a perennial high-achiever in international comparisons whose stellar education system Americans have been exhorted to emulate, schools still rely on good old-fashioned chalkboards and textbooks (and corporal punishment, but that’s a discussion for another day). And it’s not as if L.A. got a great deal on its digital playground equipment either; the school district announced that it would spend $678 for each device, which is more than basic iPads sell for in retail stores.
The results have been predictable. So far, iPads have been distributed at 47 L.A. schools. They were installed with various pieces of education software, and also tools to block popular social networking and gaming sites. Nonetheless, “less than a week after getting their iPads, almost 200 . . . high school students found a way to bypass software blocks on the devices that limit what websites the students can use,” reported NPR last week. (Ironically, that could actually be an encouraging sign of students’ smarts and savvy.) Already the school district has taken to confiscating thousands of iPads that have been hacked.
But the district is forging ahead with the plan. Last week, L.A. school superintendent John Deasy defended the iPad program, saying, “This is a civil rights issue.” We’re sure Apple Inc. couldn’t agree more. The program is certainly a hefty transfer of wealth from the taxpayers of the city of Los Angeles (median household income: $46,000) to the coffers of Apple (market capitalization: $440 billion).