There’s a bad apple in the LA school district

Salon posted an article last week that seemed to escape the notice of most in the tech world, but it’s a fascinating read for those interested in the business of gadgets and education.

The story in a nutshell: the LA school district, despite needing money to spend on basic things like repairing its infrastructure, bought US$1 billion of iPads from Apple with little to no discount. Which turned out to be a terrible decision because iPads don’t have keyboards and make poor learning devices for students.

Read it here and then come back. Done?

Technology companies may soon be getting muddied from a long-running scandal at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest system. A year after the cash-strapped district signed a $1 billion contract with Apple to purchase iPads for every student, the once-ballyhooed deal has blown up. Now the mess threatens to sully other vendors from Cambridge to Cupertino.

I’ve been harsh on Chromebooks on this blog — see this, thisthis, this and this for several rounds of hype-deflating criticism.

So I’m the last guy people will accuse of being a Chromebook advocate. Yet in education, and especially for elementary and middle school, Chromebooks make a lot of sense. They are low cost and kids can do pretty much whatever they want with them without fear of something going wrong. Like downloading a bad program or changing a system setting that will make a computer go bonkers.

Education for children of that age is also relatively basic — it’s about teaching them where and how to research information (browser), how to type (keyboard) and how to write reports (Google docs) — and for that Chromebooks are perfectly adequate. You don’t need anything more advanced (Office) until later, where a similarly priced Windows machine might make more sense.

What doesn’t make any sense are iPads. iPads are consumption devices — what would you need to teach about consumption to kids? Here’s a videogame you should play? Here’s how you watch videos? Here’s how you use Facebook?

Why would you teach a child how to type with an onscreen keyboard instead of a real one?


The article mentions that there is education software being developed specifically for the iPad that could be useful. Yeah, but you know where education software is already widely developed? For Windows and the web.

I don’t understand how anyone could have recommended iPads for school, especially when they cost so much more per device.

But LAUSD paid Apple a jaw-dropping $768 per student, and LAUSD parents were not happy. As Manel Saddique wrote on a social media site: “Btw, thanks for charging a public school district more than the regular consumer price per unit, Apple. Keep it classy…”

And the board looked foolish when it had to pay even more money to buy keyboards for iPads so that students could actually type out their reports.

Two explanations leap to mind: corruption, which the pending investigation will or will not show. Or insane brand loyalty, where people turn off their brains and just assume Apple is best for everything.

Ever since I’ve started this blog, I see it all the time, even in extremely intelligent people. It’s both impressive and depressing how powerful brands can be.

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