A $1.3 Billion Question: What's The Future Of LA's iPad Program? : NPR Ed The departure of Superintendent John Deasy leaves the controversial program — and the future of the district's technology plans — up in the air.
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A $1.3 Billion Question: What's The Future Of LA's iPad Program?

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A $1.3 Billion Question: What's The Future Of LA's iPad Program?

A $1.3 Billion Question: What's The Future Of LA's iPad Program?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This time last year, students in Los Angeles watched boxes of new iPads roll into their schools. Touted as the largest technology expansion in the country, the program ran into a host of problems, leading to the resignation of its biggest advocate, Superintendent John Deasy. KPCC's Annie Gilbertson reports on what's next.

ANNIE GILBERTSON, BYLINE: Deasy told NPR he doesn't want Los Angeles Unified's iPad program to leave with him.

JOHN DEASY: If it's dead, we're doomed.

GILBERTSON: But its future is out of his hands. Top administrators are now rethinking classroom needs. Should they look at laptops instead of tablets? School board member Steve Zimmer says the technology expansion isn't over, but it will be different.

STEVE ZIMMER: I think that we'll get there by looking at the technology needs of each school and figuring out a personalized package, if you will, for each school site.

GILBERTSON: Zimmer says it's time for a fresh start. Deasy had canceled the iPad contract in August, under mounting scrutiny over the fairness of the bidding process. Only 15 percent of students got iPads. Just as uncertain is the future of the educational software developed for the tablets by Pearson publishing. Bernadette Lucas, head of LA Unified's initiative, says it's revolutionary.

BERNADETTE LUCAS: Pearson is a doorway to a whole other world for the kids around creativity, innovation, critical thinking, computational thinking, research.

GILBERTSON: Interactive lessons on tablets promise to engage students. And real-time feedback, if it works, should speed learning for those falling behind. But a recent survey of 15 LA schools with tablets found only one classroom used the Pearson app. Teacher Ben Way sees the software as more of a roadblock than a doorway. Way's students at Simon Tech Academy in South Los Angeles are mostly Latino, many from low income homes, and are often behind in math.

BEN WAY: So this is the grade nine math, which is what I'm currently teaching.

GILBERTSON: Way fires up the Pearson app to show me how it works. The lesson begins with a short video showing cells dividing. Soon, the whole screen is filled with moving bacteria.

One cell divides into two. And then you have to account for two cells dividing into two, which is four.

WAY: Right.

GILBERTSON: Four cells dividing into two, which is eight.

WAY: So how does it change each time?

GILBERTSON: Remember, this is a math class. Students have to represent this as a mathematical equation. But can they do it?

WAY: I get a lot of blank stares.

GILBERTSON: Way says the software should give students step-by-step examples and math problems to practice. But it doesn't.

WAY: You need to make up your own problems that are similar. And that sort of defeats the purpose of buying a curriculum.

GILBERTSON: Nevertheless, school leaders nationwide believe technology can transform classrooms. In fact, the bigger question is simply how to pay for it. Next week, voters in New York state will decide whether to buy $2 billion in bonds for school tech. School board member Monica Ratliff says LA was planning to use bond funds too.

MONICA RATLIFF: The reality is that we need a long-term plan in terms of how we're going to sustain this program. I haven't seen it yet.

GILBERTSON: The iPad for every student program would have cost more than $1.3 billion. Almost half of that, $500 million, would have gone for the tablets and the software. They've got the money now. But Ratliff wonders, what happens with the next big bill that would come in a few years, when 650,000 devices would need to be replaced? For NPR News, I'm Annie Gilbertson in Los Angeles.

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