“I don’t have to stress that a billion dollars is an insane amount of money,” Jacques assures me right away.
I feel much better. I was starting to think I was the one who was insane.
As I travel through high schools in L.A., often observing classrooms where there are 45 or 50 kids packed into a classroom, I am obsessed with the LAUSD’s billion-dollar commitment to Apple iPads. I understand that this money does not come from the general budget but from money earmarked for school construction; on the other hand, the logic by which iPads qualify as a construction project seems so convoluted that it could apply to anything. Like…more teachers.
Anyway, in an attempt to understand how this purchase makes any sense, I’ve consulted a panel of experts: seven tech-whiz high school students from an after-school program called UrbanTxt, along with the program’s founder, Oscar Menjivar. The highly competitive after-school program, whose mission is to teach coding and entrepreneurship to male high school students of color in South L.A. and Watts and which this past year accepted only 1/5 of its applicants, is home to some of the sharpest young minds in the city—who in addition to their tech expertise, also happen to be the target audience of the LAUSD’s massive purchase. Over pizza and soda, in a computer lab crammed with monitors and laptops, these brilliant teenage guys patiently explain the complexities of the problem at hand.
“The thing is, these iPads are probably gonna be obsolete in three years,” says Amir. “Haven’t these LAUSD guys ever heard of Moore’s law?” He is referring to the theory advanced in 1965 by Gordon Moore of Intel that the capacity and speed of semiconductors will double every year and a half or so, causing gadgets to become exponentially smaller, faster and cheaper, a prediction that has held true for nearly fifty years, and which is why your iPhone 3, which you used to think was so awesome, is now something even your toddler would throw away in disgust.
The LAUSD has already belatedly discovered that the Pearson software installed in these iPads at somewhere between $50 to $100 per device will expire in less than three years. But the kids already feel that the software is laughable; Jesus test-drove it a couple of months ago for KPCC and was actually bewildered by how bad it was. “It was like a powerpoint,” he says, incredulous. “It was just screens, like all they did was upload a textbook.” The kids agree that a program of this nature is without value; for them, good software would enable them to create, design and explore instead of meting out drill and kill practice tests.
Though Pearson’s apparently uncontested monopoly over this software raises gigantic ethical questions and their lack of transparency about what this software costs or what it even is frankly boggles my mind, this is the first time I’ve heard that the iPads themselves will soon be dinosaurs. “They’ll be left behind soon,” Amir says as if stating the obvious, to general agreement.
But the choice of iPads is not really what concerns these tech whizzes. They’re far more preoccupied with the larger educational implications of the purchase. “What I’m struggling to see,” Amir says, “is how the tablet can be a learning platform as opposed to a laptop. There are a lot of apps that can’t be downloaded onto an iPad. They’re gonna get left behind by the netbooks that are making iPads obsolete.”
At this, a raging discussion breaks out. Some of the guys favor these netbooks, which are light, cheap devices that function like laptops at a fraction of the cost because they have minimal internal memory. All programming is downloaded from the internet cloud, where students store their work as well. The most popular of these devices, a google chromebook, costs about $200 and is in use at many schools (including the school where I worked. I loved them. For everyday tasks like online research, they got the job done fast. Who needs memory when every kid has an email account and can store work in the cloud?)
Others in the group disagree. Jacques favors laptops because they can run memory-heavy programs like photoshop. Xavier is opposed to the whole idea, believing that a well-stocked computer lab with top-of-the-line desktops should be enough, given that the majority of students have laptops or tablets anyway, and those without can use the lab after school. The others disagree, but Jesus adds that a computer lab plus additional carts full of laptops should be enough to fill the gap.
Not a single one of them would have gone with iPads. Not that they don’t like them; the group is unanimous in their enjoyment of tablets, which they agree are extremely fun for games and movies. But for real school work?
Nobody sees any advantage. After all, the iPads don’t even have keyboards, something the LAUSD only recently discovered were essential, causing them to need to purchase them for an additional $38 million. All of the kids seem to see iPads as primarily entertainment devices, too small for real work.
They agree that they might be useful for test preparation if the Common Core test is designed to be taken on an iPad. But a purchase of this unprecedented scale, exclusively designed for test prep? If the test was designed so that school districts across California will have to spend billions of dollars on a new gadget every three years in order for students take it, a gadget designed by a single corporation, who made the decision to design the test this way? And who will profit by it?
Because what these students really see underneath this massive purchase is an enormous, almost incomprehensibly vast branding opportunity, the chance to build loyalty to Apple products in an entire generation of students, and since 80% of LAUSD students live below poverty level and almost all are minorities, we’re talking about building brand loyalty in an entire generation of young people of color living in poverty, a population Apple’s marketing doesn’t always reach because its products are unattainably expensive.
Apple itself is keenly aware of the branding opportunities afforded by schools, something the company exploited in the 80’s when it was desperate for credibility and aggressively gave out free computers to schools. Now, posting a $13 billion profit for the past quarter and named by Fortune magazine as the most profitable company in the world, Apple is notorious for its complete lack of philanthropic outreach to underserved communities (or anyone). It is also no stranger to anti-trust violations, having recently been found guilty by the US Justice Department of conspiring with five publishers to fix the prices of e-books . Why is the LAUSD handing Apple a monopoly on the chance to market to the children who can least afford their products?
The group agrees that with the savings the LAUSD could have gained from buying cheaper and more versatile products, they could have purchased what underserved communities really need. “The real issue isn’t laptops or ipads,” says Oscar. “It’s access. Many schools don’t even have internet access. That’s the real digital divide. It’s who can get online. Families here in South L.A. don’t have $50 a month for internet access. If we’re gonna spend money, we should be putting a wifi hotspot in every school and extending it so that the whole community can have access at home.”
The whole group agrees that the best solution would have been to test out various options in different communities to see what worked best, but they’re still arguing about laptops, chromebooks and computer labs as I leave. I understand now that there are no easy answers. But what the kids at UrbanTxt have made me see is that what really matters is the questions you ask. After all, that’s what the Common Core is supposed to be about.
But if education all about essential questions, so obvious to these teenage tech whizzes, why didn’t the LAUSD ask them?