LAUSD’s iPad Debacle and Enduring Principles for EdTech Decision Making

Why I Would Have Avoided LA’s iPad Debacle

In response to the Wired article “What Schools Must Learn from LA’s iPad Debacle”.
[Full disclosure: I am a Pearson employee but have no inside knowledge of this deal. This analysis is mine alone.]

When I learned of LAUSD’s shambolic iPad 1:1 program, I realized that it wasn’t just a bad plan – it was a failure to properly think about how edtech supports student learning, and how to provide tech that empowers teachers and students to engage in learning tasks. I can say with confidence that I would have seen several of the red flags in this project before they became problems, because so many of them violate my core principles of evaluating (and designing) edtech solutions. This post attempts to make those core principles explicit, and to serve as a review of some of my posts over the years where I go into depth on my core edtech values.

You Have Nails, Vendors Sell Hammers – Buyer Beware

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” -Abraham Maslow

The LAUSD plan reveals an unhealthy level of blind trust in both Apple and Pearson to provide an integrated solution that will magically add value to the diverse learning contexts found in LAUSD. Though both of these companies are far-and-away the leaders in their respective fields, they (like any vendor in edtech) are in the business of providing solutions, and will tend, like Maslow’s Hammer, to believe that their solution is the right one to solve your problem.

The edtech market is overflowing with products claiming to solve a specific problem, or many at once. It is part of the job of an institutional edtech decision maker to critically evaluate these claims, and look for evidence of proven efficacy.

In my article below, I urge teachers to differentiate between iPad apps that claim to produce a specific Bloom’s Taxonomy thinking skill, realizing that these apps, at best, support good thinking, but are unlikely to automatically produce it.

“Of course device companies are trying to sell devices, but if they don’t want this big blowback on edtech, then it’d be prudent to take a long term mindset and really help these districts think through a more strategic planning process before they implement the program.” (Wired, 2015)

The takeaway here is that it’s your job as a tech decider to go beyond the reputation of the vendor, and to ask hard questions about how your tech decisions will directly affect student learning. Don’t move ahead with a major purchase before seeing clearly for yourself how the solution actually works in everyday use. It would also be great if tech vendors took more responsibility for the end user experience (it’s in their best interest to do so), but I believe it’s incumbent on edtech decision makers to be the final advocate for their own users’ experience.

Ask Yourself “What Problem am I Trying to Solve?”

“LA is emblematic of a problem we’re seeing across the country right now,” he says. “Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding technology in service of that.” (Wired, 2015)

This was the first edtech mantra I learned from my mentor, and it continues to be a guiding principle for me today. Technology innovations tend to excite our sense of wonder and can lead us to believe that a great device or app can solve a variety of problems. Before we get excited about solutions, though, we must ask this very question and make tech decisions only once we have a clear idea of where we’re trying to go.

How Can We Do More with Less?

While the whole edtech world was going ga-ga for the iPad, I was busily exploring cross-platform, low-cost edtech tools that support iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, Chromebooks, and the Web equally.

These solutions do not depend on one specific platform, but rather support students to bring their own devices, work on the ones at the school, and build transferrable skills that they can continue to use after graduation.

I also was looking at how Android could provide a first-class tablet experience for a lower cost than 1:1 iPad programs. I think Google Apps for Education is an incredibly powerful suite of free tools for any school, and it makes sense to use them using Google’s own Android and Chromebook solutions – especially when each device costs hundreds of dollars less than the competing Apple product.

The Web is the Platform — Keep it Simple, Stupid

“This was a large-scale implementation of new technologies and there have been challenges with the initial adoption, but we stand by the quality of our performance.” (Wired, 2015)

One question I have about the LAUSD deal is “why were they using new technology when there exist so many established tools for delivering online learning content over the web?” How many technical trade-offs were made to allow all this content to work inside an iOS app as opposed to being delivered over the web in accessible HTML5? Could this content have been delivered from within a standard LMS where Single Sign On solutions are commonplace and robust?

Part of the beauty of delivering instruction over the web is that there is a strong focus on accessibility, interoperabilty, and standards compliance. Good ideas that are tested elsewhere on the web can be reused, built upon, and adapted to new situations. Established LMS systems like Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, and D2L have already demonstrated their flexibility to support a variety of approaches to learning, while industry standard CMS platforms like WordPress and Drupal power a dizzying diversity of real-world use cases. Work ing within these frameworks ensures that you can meet almost any edtech challenge without having to develop new and untested technology. Besides, Do you Really Need an App for That?

Learning Materials Must be Freely Accessible (at least), Truly Open at Best

Access to content cannot be tied to a complex set of technical background tasks, as it is in the authentication system required to log into the Pearson app. (LAUSD, 2015)

As a provider of proprietary licensed learning content, Pearson has an incentive to protect that intellectual property, as is its legal right. IP holders commonly do this using Digital Rights Management (DRM) software that seeks to control how users access the content by somehow crippling the devices they use to access the content.

Cory Doctorow has sounded the cautionary bell against DRM for years, eloquently pointing out the futility of trying to stop computers from copying and sharing data when that’s what they do. More often than not, DRM adversely affects the law-abiding users (as we see in LAUSD) while paradoxically failing to prevent the piracy it’s intended to stop. For evidence, see the #DRMfail hashtag on Twitter.

#drmfail hashtag on Twitter

Though I don’t know what content was delivered on the iPads in this solution, I would have been very wary of delivering content on a platform with so many digital locks that it impeded users ability to access the content at all.

Does this Solution Promote our Independence and Self-Determination?

Often with technology decisions, there is an underlying tension between convenience vs. control, dependence vs. independence, freedom vs. something less. Apple is well-known for offering users a trouble-free experience in exchange for some degree of control over their technology and their economic choices:

…no other technology company exercises the same amount of control over what its customers can and can’t do with the things they bought. Part of this approach is due to Apple’s deep belief that a closed digital ecosystem with limited options benefits both Apple and its customers. Part of it is due to an all-consuming desire for control on the part of the ringmaster, otherwise known as Steve Jobs. The bottom line: Apple makes great products, but its marketing practices limit your choices and cost you more money. (PC World, 2009)

A few years ago I wrote “Own the Means of Production: What Karl Marx Knew about Opportunity in the Digital Economy” which continues to be one of my most popular posts. In it, I stress the importance of using tech tools where you control your data, you control the interoperability with other tools, and you retain the freedom to use your tools and data in ways the vendors may not yet have planned for.

Several of the complaints against Pearson’s solution in the LAUSD report center around inadequate accessibility, access, and control over the student learning data produced by the app.

It’s clear that LAUSD’s tech deciders fell on the opposite side of the spectrum from my orientation — choosing extreme convenience and getting a profound lack of control in the bargain. As a result, they could not fix problems once they arose, but could only wring their hands and wait for Pearson to work the bugs out.

Righting the Ship

The group has four key questions:
What will students learn?
How will students learn?
What resources will be needed?
How will it work?
These are questions anyone can see the district should have asked long before it purchased a single iPad. But they are critical questions to ask, no matter how late they may be.

It’s good to see that, finally, LAUSD is starting to ask the right questions. I hope this guide helps future edtech decision makers make choices that enhance their school’s self-determination and freedom to support teaching and learning.

One Last Note

I don’t mean for this post to be taken as excessively critical of Pearson — it is an extremely large and diverse company, and most of the people I’ve met here are smart, committed, and genuinely focused on promoting student learning. While I was initially distrustful of Pearson for its outsized role in American education, I have come to see that it is one of the few education companies large enough to take on a huge project like outfitting all 700,000 LAUSD students with iPads. My own small group consults with institutions to make changes they would be unable to make on their own. We do big things well.
My goal is to show that, in tackling large projects like the LAUSD contract, we can also be a major force for student empowerment if we consider it throughout the whole design process. We can also prevent usability snafus by defaulting to open, interoperable tools.

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