What happens when policymakers get too starry-eyed about the promise of technology without giving enough thought to the practical implications of an initiative? The situation now facing the Los Angeles Unified School District could be a model for caution as administrators, after trumpeting the rollout of iPads to every one of their 640,000 students, have now had to delay the program because it took students only a week to work around the program loaded to enforce usage limits.
Prior to handing out the tablets, the district loaded them with software that would block student access to things that tend to limit the gadget's usefulness as a learning tool. Specifically, social media applications like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as prevent kids from visiting the more questionable parts of the world wide web like websites serving up pornography, were blocked.
According to Matt Brian of Engadget, the precautions were obviously a good idea in principle – much like the iPad distribution program itself – that suffered somewhat in application. Less than a week before the first tablets were in students' hands, they figured out that disabling all usage blocks was as simple as deleting a personal setting profile from the system's memory.
Students bypassed the security lock on the device by deleting a personal profile preloaded in the settings — a simple trick that has the school district police chief recommending the board limit the $1 billion rollout (including hardware and other related expenses) before it turns into a "runaway train scenario." For now, officials have banned home use of the iPads while they assess ways to better restrict access — they would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids.
Although such a simple workaround provided some hours of amusement for tech bloggers everywhere, this is hardly the only problem that has affected the district's iPad program. Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times writes that families around the district are demanding that district officials clarify exactly who is responsible if the students break or lose the iPads they've been given in school.
Ultimately, officials want the iPads used at home — that's considered a key element of their educational value. But their dollar value also became a concern at a meeting Wednesday of a district committee overseeing technology efforts. Senior district officials acknowledged that they haven't decided on consequences if the $700 iPads are lost or broken.
"It's extremely disconcerting that the parent and student responsibility issue has not been hammered out, and that different parents and students received different information during the rollout," said Board of Education member Monica Ratliff, who chaired the meeting.
Weeks into the experiment, no one, from parents to students to teachers, is sure whether the tablets will improve education in Los Angeles. But as problems with logistics and administration mount by the day, it's clear that a major obstacle to expanding the pilot to all of LAUSD's schools will be managing the project and streamlining practical operations and policy.