One of the downsides of raising questions about the classroom effectiveness of new technologies is when a school district buys tablets and laptops, journalists call to ask for my view of the purchases.
That happened yesterday when the Board of Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)–the second largest school system in the nation–approved a $30 million contract with Apple Inc. to buy iPads for every student in 47 schools in the first phase of a district-wide plan to have 655,000 students equipped with tablets. Funds for these iPads come from two bond referenda aimed at construction and maintenance of facilities in LAUSD.
Called The Common Core Technology Project, each iPad costs the district $678, higher than the price of an iPad bought in an Apple store, but it comes with a case (no keyboard, however) and an array of pre-loaded software aimed at preparing students for the impending Common Core standards and the state online testing system. The Board of Education and Superintendent John Deasy want each student to have access to an iPad. With mostly Latino and poor students in LAUSD, the eventual cost of this contract with Apple Inc. could run over $400 million.
I received three calls from Los Angeles journalists looking for my reactions to the Board of Education decision on iPads. Since I was working with a group of Bay area principals and the journalists were on a short deadline, we did not talk. Later in the day, I read the LAUSD press release on the decision and different media stories.
Here is what I would have said to the reporters.
1. There is no body of evidence that iPads will increase math and reading scores on state standardized tests. There is no evidence that students using iPads (or laptops or desktop computers) will get decent paying jobs after graduation. These are the most common reasons boards of education and school administrators across the nation give for buying tablets for K-12 students. But not in LAUSD.
Acquiring 1:1 iPads for students, according to the LAUSD press release is to: “provide an individualized, interactive and informative-rich learning environment” for every student. One would have to assume that such an “environment” would lead to gains in test scores. But it is an assumption. Since many low-income families do not have computers at home or Internet connections, providing iPads is a worthy reason–what used to be called “closing the digital divide“–for the large expenditure.
On what basis, however, will the district determine whether to move to phase 2 of the plan? Again, according to the official press release, the assessment of this first phase “will include feedback … from teachers, students, parents and other key stakeholders.” That’s it. No hard data on how often the devices were used, in what situations, and under what conditions. Nor mention of data on student outcomes.
2. Apart from “closing the digital divide,” the main reason for the Apple Inc. contract is that Common Core standards and accompanying online tests are on the horizon and due to arrive in 2014-2015. LAUSD wants teachers and students to be ready.
3. The true cost of this experiment runs far higher than the projected $400 million to give iPads to 655,000 students. That is what Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) means. The cost for the iPad is given as $678 per unit (remember, there is no keyboard usually listed at $100 which will have to be bought eventually for secondary school students). Funds to hire school technical assistants, providing the wireless infrastructure, loss of tablets, and repair of broken tablets, insurance, professional development for teachers, costs for replacement devices when three-year warranties expire—I could go on but these numbers double and triple the published hardware and software costs. Consider that the reports of the $30 million contract with Apple Inc. omitted that the Board of Education approved $50 million for this first phase to accommodate some of these other costs detailed above.
Here is an infographic on TCO from Dell, a company that has a stake in the tablet market.
Intel, another company with a vested interest in Microsoft tablets and a losing competitor in the LAUSD bid for a contract produced a white paper that also pointed out that TCO runs from two to three times higher than the announced price of the device.
The point is that TCO is the true cost and administrators and school boards eager to buy devices hide TCO in separate documents or glossy verbiage. Worst of all, no one looks ahead to that year when bond funds are gone and these glorious devices have been superseded by even smarter machines.
These are some of the points that I would have raised with journalists had I been able to speak with them. But yesterday’s news is often forgotten. No one called me today.