A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—and almost always involves a few major stumbles. In the past couple years, Los Angeles Unified School District’s missteps have offered plenty of cautionary tales about what can go wrong when it comes to education technology adoption.
Despite scrapping a $1.3 billion plan to provide every student with iPads, the second largest district in the US isn’t out of the spotlight yet. A new report on the district’s instructional technology initiative offers plenty more lessons on what not to do when rolling out technology and devices across a large school district. (Here’s the executive summary.)
The study, conducted by the American Institutes of Research, found the district made improvements in technology infrastructure such as increased bandwidth to support devices. But overall “the district has not yet arrived at a solution” when it comes to “deploying devices in a timely manner, communicating with schools, coordinating efforts with other instructional initiatives, and clarifying a vision for technology use in instruction.”
In 2014-15, LA Unified delivered 46,660 iPads to 66 schools across different phases. Device usage increased from the previous year, finds the report’s authors, but:
“What did not seem to change was the way in which teachers and students were using technology. In both years, teachers primarily used technology for whole-class instruction (e.g., projecting an assignment on a screen in front of class); this did not take advantage of the 1:1 device availability for students.”
In addition, use of the Pearson’s digital curriculum that was pre-bundled on the devices “was generally low.”
Coordination and communication were often lackluster, resulting in delayed deployments as IT staff struggled with issues like assigning Apple IDs to students. Professional development was provided in the form of five centralized workshops, but these were “not sufficient to prepare teachers to use technology for instruction.”
Still, the authors found “several pockets of promises.” In particular, the 28 “virtual learning complex facilitators” trained by the district to provide on-site technology integration support “became true partners to teachers and school leaders in some schools.” Many schools also offered digital citizenship lessons that addressed Internet safety and cyberbullying.
Curiously, some of the schools found to be furthest along in tech implementation and were those where device deployment was delayed.
Many of the report’s recommendations emphasized the need for vision and leadership, noting that “a lack of alignment with instructional initiatives, curricula, and other professional development in the district (particularly in the local districts) seemed to be a key barrier” to help educators maximize the use of technology. Creating plans for other platforms and devices should also be a priority, since most of the district’s technology plans and resources were designed with Apple products in mind.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the district paid AIR $340,000—or the equivalent of 850 iPad Airs—to conduct the evaluation. In a prepared response, LA Unified Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines says the report “points out areas of needed improvement that I have been aware of since my return to the District last October.” (John Deasy, his predecessor and architect of the iPad plan, resigned in October 2014.)
One of the new rules that the district has set in place requires every school to have “an approved strategic plan that details how the computers will be used as an instructional tool and how parents will be involved in the process.”
That might sound like a no-brainer. But as LA Unified has shown, common sense may not always be so common when it comes to adopting and implementing education technology. At the very least, the district now seems to be heeding a motto that Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, often shares in public: “Plan before you purchase. Don’t purchase and plan.”