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Schools Learn Tablets’ Limits

Districts Grapple With Glitches as Some Say Devices Can Supplement Lessons

Two elementary-school pupils in the Los Angeles district tool around with their tablets in August. Problems have stalled the district’s tablet rollout.Photo: Los Angeles Times / Associated Press

As schools rush to embrace computer tablets as teaching tools, glitches have officials in a few districts rethinking the usefulness and even security of the latest technology trend.

The highest-profile snafu came in Los Angeles, where a $1 billion program—funded by voter-approved bonds—to provide Apple Inc. iPads for K-12 students came under fire after some students sidestepped the security system and accessed social media, online games and other content that was supposed to be blocked.


The Los Angeles Unified School District temporarily took back thousands of tablets from students at three high schools and required the devices to remain on-campus in all 30 schools where the effort had been rolled out. School board officials called a special meeting for Oct. 29 to assess the $50 million first phase of the program ahead of votes to fund the second and third phases.

Los Angeles school board member Bennett Kayser said the district’s initiative was “hastily planned” and several “red flags” were overlooked, such as the potential expense of lost or stolen devices and questions about the completeness of the installed curriculum software. Plus, he added, “There is no silver bullet or Superman here; technology is a tool, not an end unto itself.”

The fitful Los Angeles rollout comes as K-12 schools nationwide are expected to spend $9.7 billion on technology in 2013, up from $6 billion in 2003, according to the Center for Digital Education, a national research and advisory institute specializing in education technology trends and policy. Districts in Maryland, Kansas, North Dakota and elsewhere have rolled out tablet to thousands of students this year. And experts say the pace of technology spending is rapidly growing as schools try to become more tech-savvy.

Advocates say new technology may allow teachers to better target students’ individual academic levels and learning styles, and engage students who often are bored by the more traditional style of teaching. For example, teachers can watch students writing essays in real time and shoot one a note if she failed to write a proper introduction and another a separate note if she used improper punctuation. Moreover, they say, students need technological skills to compete in today’s economy.

Leslie Wilson, of the Michigan-based One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that helps districts implement programs that assign a digital device to every student, said students must learn to be “creators and producers, not regurgitators and consumers” of information, and technology can hasten those skills. She said laptops, tablets and other such devices can benefit students if they are chosen with student achievement in mind, rather than on the “glitziness” of the product.

Skeptics say schools are racing into the digital promise with little forethought and, in some cases, expecting computer tools to boost academic outcomes even though the research on the issue is inconclusive. Researchers from the University of Southern Maine, for example, found that a program that provided laptops to middle-school students boosted writing scores, while a study by the Texas Center for Educational Research found no difference in test scores between middle-school students who got laptops and those who didn’t.

The Los Angeles program, the first phase of which was approved in February, aims to provide by the end of 2014 every student with a tablet employing digital, interactive curricula designed to meet Common Core math and reading standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Under its contract with Apple, the school district pays $678 a tablet; Apple didn’t return a call for comment.

Parents and residents questioned the high price tag and speedy rollout of the devices. Some students and parents said they didn’t understand their personal liability if an iPad was broken or misplaced. Now, some school-board members are calling for a clearer plan for the costs of maintaining and updating the technology.

Still, district officials say they are pleased with the results so far. The devices allow for instruction to be tailored to each student’s level and teachers have gotten creative with their assignments, such as having students work with slide shows on the tablet. Superintendent John Deasy called the initiative “stunningly successful,” and added: “It’s pretty amazing watching students who’ve never had access [to tablet technology] and now have it.”

Meanwhile, officials in Fort Bend Independent School District in suburban Houston scrapped a $16 million iPad initiative after an audit this month found, among other things, teachers complaining the curricula on the tablets were incomplete and didn’t align with the district’s instructional goals. The district had given out about 6,000 tablets with an interactive science curriculum to fourth- through eighth-graders as part of an effort to boost science test scores.

Jim Rice, president of the school district board of trustees, said schools are “seeing a sea change in how children learn and schools need to keep up with that,” but, he added, “the devil is in the details and districts should understand all the moving parts before they jump into technology.”

Officials in Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C., suspended a $30 million effort that gave 15,000 middle-school students Amplify tablets after students or school staff broke about 10% of the screens either by dropping them or placing them in backpacks or purses, and some of the cables that connect the devices to keyboards broke.

Officials with Amplify—the education subsidiary of News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal—and the school district say they are working to fix the problems. District officials said they were satisfied with the academic content on the tablet and said teachers had been using them to provide quality instruction. Superintendent Maurice Green said the suspension was “extremely disappointing” and said the district “remains committed to personalizing learning and to the one-to-one initiative.”

Many districts around the country are rolling out tablets without a hitch. About 850 students at Neil Armstrong Middle School in suburban Portland, Ore., got digital tablets this year after a smaller pilot program at the school last year showed students were more engaged and less likely to misbehave during class.

Nichole Carter, an eighth-grade English teacher who was part of the tablet pilot program last year, said the devices dramatically cut down on paper costs, allow her to track student work in real time and let children work together through a protected social media-like platform.

“A tablet is a tool that can enhance a lesson and engage kids,” she said. “But you really have to know your content and understand how to teach for it to be effective in helping children learn.”

Write to Stephanie Banchero atstephanie.banchero@wsj.com and Erica E. Phillips at erica.phillips@wsj.com



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