What Can Colleges Learn from the LAUSD Epic iPad Fail?

Are you smarter than a 5th grader? That's the title of a TV show, but it’s also a question that education technology managers should ask when their schools decide to begin providing students with iPads and other tablets.

That’s one takeaway from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which made news earlier this year for its plan to provide all 640,000-plus students with an iPad by next year. At the time, this blog used LAUSD to highlight the importance of calculating total cost of ownership (TCO), which goes beyond just replacing damaged and lost tablets.

Now LAUSD is back in the news for something that everyone should have seen coming: Some students quickly figured out how to bypass a feature that was supposed to prevent them from using unauthorized apps, sites and services such as Facebook and YouTube. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the way is by deleting their personal profile. One LAUSD senior told The Los Angeles Times that students started to look for ways to defeat the security mechanism because "they took them home and they can't do anything with them."

The hack doesn’t work when iPads are connected to the district’s WLAN. LAUSD is considering two options for extending its policies to student homes and public places that don’t rely on user profiles. One would lock the iPads so they can use only pre-installed school materials provided by Pearson. The other, which would take longer to implement, is to deploy a new policy-enforcement solution.

For now, LAUSD has halted home use of iPads, and it could pause the rollout altogether. "I'm guessing this is just a sample of what will likely occur on other campuses once this hits Twitter, YouTube or other social media sites explaining to our students how to breach or compromise the security of these devices," LAUSD Police Chief Steven Zipperman said in a confidential memo to senior staff obtained by The Times. "I want to prevent a 'runaway train' scenario when we may have the ability to put a hold on the roll-out."

The district has supported faculty and staff iPads for more than three years. So another takeaway is that although that kind of extensive hands-on experience is helpful when preparing for a student rollout, it’s a mistake to assume that the only major difference is scale. Just the opposite. For example, when students hack their devices, the backlash from politicians, pundits and taxpayers will be bigger and louder. There also may be legal and regulatory ramifications, such as violating the strings attached to Children’s Internet Protection Act grants used to fund student tablets.

Watch how Apple responds. It’s already sold about 10 million iPads to schools, a market that’s been one of its strongholds almost since the company’s inception. LAUSD is a big customer, but more importantly, the district also is an opportunity for Apple to quickly step in with a fast, cost-effective solution that all existing and prospective customers can implement.

Our recent Q&A with several education technology managers identified other ways that Apple can make the iPad and other products a better fit for classrooms and beyond. “iOS devices are designed as single-user devices, and it seems whenever there is any management of these devices, you are going against the grain,” said Troy Bagwell, Decatur (Texas) Independent School District director of technology. Half a continent away, no doubt his peers at LAUSD would agree.