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Commentary: If iPads are the answer, what’s the question?

Ellie Herman | January 21, 2014

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devices“I don’t have to stress that a billion dollars is an insane amount of money,” Jacques assures me right away.

I feel much better. I was starting to think I was the one who was insane.

To understand how LAUSD’s billion dollar commitment to Apple iPads makes any sense, I’ve consulted a panel of experts: seven tech-whiz high school students from an after-school program called UrbanTxt, along with the program’s founder, Oscar Menjivar.

The highly competitive after-school program, whose mission is to teach coding and entrepreneurship to male high school students of color in South L.A. and Watts, is home to some of the sharpest young minds in the city. In addition to their tech expertise, they also happen to be the target audience of LAUSD’s massive purchase. Over pizza and soda, these brilliant teenagers patiently explain the complexities of the problem at hand.

“The thing is, these iPads are probably gonna be obsolete in three years,” says Amir. “Haven’t these LAUSD guys ever heard of Moore’s law?”

Gordon Moore of Intel advanced a theory in 1965 that the capacity and speed of semiconductors will double every year and a half or so, causing gadgets to become exponentially smaller, faster and cheaper, a prediction that has held true for nearly 50 years. It’s why your iPhone 3, which you used to think was so awesome, is now something even a toddler would throw away in disgust.

LAUSD belatedly discovered that the Pearson software installed in these iPads at somewhere between $50 to $100 per device will expire within three years. But the kids already feel that the software is laughable; Jesus test-drove it a couple of months ago for KPCC and was actually bewildered by how bad it was. “It was like a powerpoint,” he says, incredulous. The kids agree that good software would enable them to create, design and explore instead of meting out drill and kill practice tests.

Though Pearson’s apparently uncontested monopoly over this software raises gigantic ethical questions, as does the lack of transparency about what this software costs or what it even is, this is the first time I’ve heard that the iPads themselves will soon be dinosaurs. “They’ll be left behind soon,” Amir says, as if stating the obvious.

But the choice of iPads is not really what concerns these tech whizzes. They’re far more preoccupied with the larger educational implications of the purchase. “What I’m struggling to see,” Amir says, “is how the tablet can be a learning platform as opposed to a laptop. There are a lot of apps that can’t be downloaded onto an iPad. They’re gonna get left behind by the netbooks that are making iPads obsolete.”

At this, a raging discussion breaks out. Some of the guys favor these netbooks, which are light, cheap devices that function like laptops at a fraction of the cost because they have minimal internal memory. The most popular of these devices, a Google Chromebook, costs a little over $200 and is in use at many schools. Others in the group disagree. Jacques favors laptops because they can run memory-heavy programs like Photoshop. Xavier and Jesus favor a mix of computer labs, laptops and netbooks.

Not a single one of them would have gone with iPads. Not that they don’t like them; the group is unanimous in their enjoyment of tablets, which they agree are extremely fun for games and movies. But for real school work?

Nobody sees any advantage for classwork. After all, the iPads don’t even have keyboards, something the LAUSD only recently discovered were essential, causing them to need to purchase them for an additional $38 million.

They agree that they might be useful for test preparation if the Common Core test is designed to be taken on an iPad. But a purchase of this unprecedented scale, exclusively designed for test prep? If the test were designed so that school districts across California have to spend billions on a new gadget by a single corporation every three years for students to take it, who made the decision to design the test this way? And who will profit by it?

Because what these students really see underneath this massive purchase is an enormous, almost incomprehensibly vast branding opportunity, the chance to build loyalty to Apple products in an entire generation of students. And since 80 percent of LAUSD students live below poverty level and almost all are minorities, we’re talking about building brand loyalty for an entire generation of young people of color living in poverty, a population that Apple’s marketing doesn’t always reach because its products are unattainably expensive.

Apple itself is keenly aware of the branding opportunities afforded by schools, something the company exploited in the ‘80s when it was desperate for credibility and aggressively giving schools free computers. Now, one of the most profitable companies in the world according to Fortune magazine, Apple is notorious for its complete lack of philanthropic outreach to underserved communities (or anyone). Why is LAUSD handing Apple a monopoly on the chance to market to the children who can least afford its products?

The group agrees that with this pricey iPad purchase, LAUSD isn’t addressing what underserved communities really need first.  “Access,” says Oscar. “Many schools don’t even have internet access. That’s the real digital divide. It’s who can get online. Families here in South L.A. don’t have $50 a month for internet access. If we’re gonna spend money, we should be putting a wifi hotspot in every school and extending it so that the whole community can have access at home.”

The whole group agrees that the best solution would have been to test out various options in different communities to see what worked best, but the guys are still arguing about laptops, Chromebooks and computer labs as I leave. I understand now that there are no easy answers.

But what the kids at UrbanTxt have made me see is that what really matters is the questions you ask. After all, that’s what the Common Core is supposed to be about.

If education is all about essential questions that are so obvious to these teenage tech whizzes, why didn’t LAUSD ask them?

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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