In schools across the United States, chalk and textbooks are disappearing. In their place are tablets and laptops. This technological transformation is only just beginning, but it stands to reshape the ways teachers teach and students learn. In 2015, school systems will spend an estimated $522 million on tablets and readers, and $4.7 billion on IT overall. “Districts are trying to be very, very thoughtful about how they do this,” says Scott Himelstein, executive director of the University of San Diego’s Institute for Entrepreneurship in Education. “Obviously they don’t want to be in a situation like LAUSD.”
He’s referring to the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the country, which in the fall of 2013 launched an ambitious plan to put iPads into the hands of each of its 643,000 K–12 students. But almost as quickly as the first devices were distributed, the plan imploded—a victim of incomplete software packages, easily circumvented security systems, and revelations that the supposedly open bidding process for the $1.3 billion contract was basically decided in advance.
In its rush to get its iPad program started, the district was handing out devices to students before the educational software was ready to be used, and without a clear strategy for integrating them into the classroom. The superintendent resigned a year later, and the whole deal is now the subject of a federal investigation.
LAUSD’s blunder, which set a new standard for how not to go digital, teaches an important lesson, say experts in education and technology: school districts should be spending at least as much time figuring out how their classrooms will use technology as they do shopping for it.
L.A. wasn’t the first school district to begin this digital transition. Public and private school systems in Baltimore, San Francisco, Boston, and many other cities have been augmenting their classrooms with technology for years. In 2002, the state of Maine began a program that would eventually outfit every one of its middle school and high school students with their own laptops.
While school systems are eager to jump in, the research on how technology can improve student learning is still relatively thin. Still, some early studies do find evidence that it can lead to measurable improvements, particularly through the personalized learning made possible by technologies and software that allow students to learn at their own pace.
A November 2014 report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on personalized learning practices found that the 23 schools studied showed gains in math and reading test scores significantly greater than those seen in a control group of schools without personalized learning. And a 2010 study of nearly 1,000 schools by the education research group Project RED found that classes with deeply integrated technology showed an increase in high-stakes test scores and a reduction in disciplinary action and dropouts compared with traditional classes. In terms of the actual technologies used, experts say tablets are proving especially effective at improving reading skills, while laptops help writing and research skills.
The research hasn’t kept pace, however, with how quickly educational technology is evolving and being implemented in schools, says Sara Schapiro, a director at Digital Promise, an independent nonprofit authorized by Congress in 2008 that’s focused on improving education through technology.
That’s created a somewhat awkward situation for school districts. They’re already full of what Himelstein calls digital-native students who’ve proved they can benefit from technology, but the school districts have little data to show taxpayers that investing millions or even billions of public dollars in technology will explicitly raise test scores or usher underperforming kids toward college.
The case is particularly difficult to make in public school systems with diverse socioeconomic conditions and large student populations. “Laptops make a good school better, but they don’t make a bad school good,” says Mark Warschauer. He’s a professor at the UC Irvine School of Education who’s studied the implementation of technology in school systems, and he says it can’t be the ultimate solution for schools with greater systemic issues like high teacher turnover. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put computers into low-performing schools,” he says, “but be realistic about the expectations and give the other kinds of broader support needed.”
Broader support, many experts agree, begins with training teachers to use technology in the classroom. The newest gadget with the slickest software won’t do much to help struggling students if their teachers don’t understand how to integrate it into the curriculum.
Teacher training has been the priority at the Houston Independent School District, which is currently phasing in a program that would provide each of the roughly 46,000 students in its 40 high schools with a laptop. Lenny Schad, the district’s chief technology information officer, says it’s a multi-year initiative in each school that starts with training principals and teachers to integrate the technology into their curricula and only gradually increases the school’s reliance on it. “The focus has very little to do with technology. The focus is on ‘What are we going to do to facilitate changing instruction?’” explains Schad.
Some smaller, more nimble districts are moving faster. Just north of San Diego, the 5,500-student, K–6 Encinitas Union School District began planning its digital transition in 2009 with a goal of increasing individualized learning. After some early pilot tests in single classes, the district implemented a program for the 2011–12 school year that provided each child with an iPad. Tim Baird, the district’s superintendent, says students have shown marked improvements in learning the state-required curriculum after using game-based apps like ST Math, and they have also made more creative uses of the iPad’s apps—for example, using iMovie to integrate filmmaking into class projects. A short documentary produced by a group of elementary school students recently won an award at the California Student Media Festival. Baird says surveys of students, teachers, and parents show that student engagement is way up since the iPads were introduced.
“I think sometimes you’ve got to go slow to figure it out and then sometimes you’ve got to go fast,” he says. “This could have been a 10-year implementation, but look how much learning would have been lost in that time.”
In the wake of its iPad fiasco, however, LAUSD—more than 10 times the size of Encinitas USD—is slowing things down. The new superintendent, Ramon C. Cortines, recently launched a task force of teachers, administrators, and education experts to draft a strategy for implementing technology throughout the district.
Recently, about 40 task force members gathered in a basement classroom at an L.A. high school to hear from a few LAUSD principals. After their presentations, Judy Burton, the founder of a public charter school system and the task force’s volunteer chairperson, told the principals to imagine they had a “magic wand” and could outline a technology implementation plan for the entire district. “What would you want that memo to say?” she asked. After a beat of silence, the room broke into laughter. In a district with more than 643,000 students spread across more than 1,000 schools, the prospect of crafting a single approach is daunting. “Lessons learned,” Burton says of the bungled iPad program: “there are no quick fixes.”
The task force will present its recommendations to the LAUSD board in November.