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Customers test out iPad minis on display in Los Angeles. Students who received free iPads from the Los Angeles Unified School District in a deal with Apple are finding ways to use them for more than just classwork.
Customers test out iPad minis on display in Los Angeles. Students who received free iPads from the Los Angeles Unified School District in a deal with Apple are finding ways to use them for more than just classwork. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Los Angeles Unified School District started issuing iPads to its students this school year, as part of a $30 million deal with Apple. The rollout is in the first of three phases, and ultimately, the goal is to distribute more than 600,000 devices.
But less than a week after getting their iPads, almost 200 of the districts' high school students found a way to bypass software blocks on the devices that limit what websites the students can use.
Roosevelt High School in East LA has the most offenders. Earlier this week, Mayra Najera, a high school senior, told NPR that she hasn't hacked her school-issued iPad just yet, but that some classmates have offered to do it for her.
"They told me Friday, 'I would do it for you because you're my friend,' " she says. "They told me that!"
If you weren't a friend, the hack would cost $2.
"They were charging people to do it. It was like a little black market," Najera says.
The students are getting around software that lets school district officials know where the iPads are, and what the students are doing with them at all times. This software also lets the district block certain sites, such as social media favorites like Facebook.
The district's chief information officer, Ronald Chandler, says he wasn't really surprised that students bypassed blocks so quickly. He says that hacks happen at all levels, whether it's secured parts of the federal government, or student iPads.
"So we talked to students, and we asked them, 'Why did you do this?' And in many cases, they said, 'You guys are just locking us out of too much stuff.' "
He says, after talking with students, that the Los Angeles Unified School District's iPad policy probably should be changed, allowing for some social media and music streaming sites.
"They were bound to fail," says Renee Hobbs, who runs the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. She's been a skeptic of the iPad program from the start. "Children are growing up today [with] the iPad used as a device for entertainment. So when the iPad comes into the classroom, then there's a shift in everybody's thinking."
And sometimes that shift is hard for everybody. Hobbs says this isn't the first time educators have tried to co-opt things that lots of people use for fun.
"Back in the 1930s, there was a big initiative to use radio in education," says Hobbs. "It was the original distance education." But, Hobbs says, that all fizzled out.
"Within a decade, we discovered that the commercial use of radio, for soap operas and music shows and game shows, actually eclipsed the educational use of radio. And the entertainment function is just so [dominant]. You can't compete," Hobbs says.
Los Angeles Unified School District, for its part, says it's addressing what it calls "a glitch" in the iPad software. The district told NPR that for now, the hackers won't be punished. But home use of the iPads has been halted, indefinitely.
The rollout of the iPads might have to be delayed as officials reassess access policies. Right now, the program is still in Phase 1, with fewer than 15,000 iPads distributed. In November, the district is set to start moving into Phases 2 and 3 of the iPad program.
In light of the hacking scandal, Mayra Najera, the Roosevelt High School senior, isn't sure she needs an iPad at all.
"It's hard to tell," she says. Najera says she doesn't even do digital homework on her school-issued iPad. She takes care of that on her personal iPhone 5.