The real LA schools iPad scandal

The real LA schools iPad scandal

Summary: A massive rollout of iPads in the LA Unified School District has been paused after the district's plans for content filtering and security quickly collapsed. Won’t someone think of the children?


It is still in the early stages of the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) plan to give iPads to all students and teachers. Many problems are showing up, but one related to security management teaches a lesson applicable to all managed deployments: If you lock down devices too strictly, users will push back and try to bypass the restrictions.

The district allowed students to take their devices home, but restricted the sites to which students could connect. They use AirWatch for Mobile Device Management (MDM), and through that force users through the Apple Global Proxy, which allows the District to filter Internet access. But many students quickly worked around the restrictions.

According to the LA Times:

Roosevelt students matter-of-factly explained their technique Tuesday outside school. The trick, they said, was to delete their personal profile information. With the profile deleted, a student was free to surf.

More to the point, by deleting the profile, the students were able to unenroll their iPad from AirWatch. It's worth pointing out that this in no way reflects badly on AirWatch, and IT received notice when students deleted their profiles. But to the extent that District IT was surprised that students did what they did, it reflects badly on IT planning. I reached out to AirWatch, but they weren't able to respond in time.

The LAUSD plan was marked by ambition and idealism. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy defended the program as a way to make the best technology as available to the poorest students as the richest; eventually 640,000 iPads are to be distributed to students.

All students should have access to technology. And all students should have access to live digital curriculum. I mean, what we would want for the most privileged students, it's our obligation to make sure that students who live in circumstances of poverty have exactly that.

Unfortunately, assuming Deasy is sincere about trying to make technology as available to the poorest students as the richest, it's clear evidence of the doomed nature of the program. It is now 3 1/2 years since the release of the original iPad 1, and that device is effectively obsolete, and has been for a while. It can only run an old and insecure version of iOS and lots of 3rd party software won't run on it anymore.

Is the LAUSD committed to upgrading student hardware every few years to keep them current? Because the rich kids in the schools can certainly afford to buy their own new iPads every year or two.

Back to the tech. It's inevitable that such an ambitious project would run into problems, and there are purported success stories of iPad deployments in education, such as the one in the Lexington, South Carolina School District. LA Lexington used MobileIron for MDM instead of AirWatch, but that's not what matters. Neither product can stop the user from removing the profile. Organizations that use Apple Configurator can lock the profile, but this feature is not available to outside MDM management software. Apple will change this soon to enable MDM products to lock the profile.

But even if the profile were lockable there will be ways, perhaps harder, but still there, for students to get around the restrictions, and they'll do it even if they know the District will find out. When that happens, the District has to be ready to follow through on their discipline policies or they lose all credibility.

That's why they need to tread carefully with policies. The LAUSD appears to have tried to get maximum policies with minimum effort.

I asked Ojas Rege, VP of Strategy at MobileIron about it. He made an apt analogy: "Giving your teen a fast car and saying 'only drive 35 miles per hour' doesn't work." If the LAUSD really wants to try to enforce its rules against inappropriate content and software, Rege sees three options:

  • Secure access to school services through identity certificates so that connectivity is only available if the device is in compliance (no bad apps, etc.) when the device is on campus. So even if the device is out of compliance off campus, there are no inappropriate activities enabled on campus
  • Only provide the mobile device on campus – it is no longer a take-home device (that’s what my son has at his school)
  • Use some of the upcoming iOS enrollment capabilities to lock down the device capabilities on or off campus (in future)

Rege also notes that kids of different ages may be presumed to have different levels of responsibility, so they may want to have different policies for different grades or age groups.

The real problems with the LA iPad deployment are policy-related. The technology did exactly what technologists must have told the District it would do. And it's not just bad IT policy.

As the LA Times reports:

The vast majority of the cost will be covered by school construction bonds, a payment method that has sparked some concerns and legal and logistical hurdles.

Yes, today's iPads will likely be unusable in 2016, but they will be paying for them until 2043 with money that was meant for facilities. That's the real scandal.

Correction: An earlier version of this story at once point misstated that the LAUSD used MobileIron. They use AirWatch, and Lexington, SC uses MobileIron.

Topics: Security, Government US

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  • The tax payer should not be buying iPads to give to students.

    This just goes to demonstrate they're looking at them as Facebook devices instead of the intended learning device.
    • Spoken like someone

      who knows absolutely nothing about education. Thankyou for demonstrating your small-minded thinkiing.
      • I think ye means the *students*, not the teachers

        And he's right - you hand a student a tablet and the first thing they'll do is try to get to social media or surf. Not taking that into account in a way that's realistic isn't a good policy.
        • It does not matter which type of computing device your give a student

          they will always try to access social networking sites and other sites not directly relevant. Nonetheless, that constitutes part of "every learning" which is still a valid and important part of the learning process; just as much so as formal and informal learning.
        • Yes, I knew that he meant the students

  • Totally agree...

    "Yes, today's iPads will likely be unusable in 2016, but they will be paying for them until 2043 with money that was meant for facilities. That's the real scandal."

    People are going back and forth if iPads are the right technology, etc but you hit the nail right on the head... a 30 year bond with interest owed on a 3 year device!!!! The people who voted for this should be fired and sued for gross incompetence. The people paying for this for 25 years will not even reap the benefits of the cost they are paying.
    Rann Xeroxx
    • It really doesn't matter what the device is if the bond is 30 years

      • Exactly.

        Why can't schools offer BYOD with limited access to web sites from their Internet and giving students the devices they wanted for subsidized prices having agreements with manufacturers? Rubbing this 30 year binding for a short-lived device on tax-payers is totally ridiculous.
        Ram U
        • We have something like that

          The school where I work has dedicated staff and student byod networks that restrict access to certain areas of the internet. It typically works, until they overhauled the authentication system and made the network virtually inaccessible. I've since done my best to get students onto the network or others that are accessible.
        • Because then wealthier students will have tablets

          While poorer ones won't. That will give the richer students yet another advantage in a public school system.

          A better solution would be for the schools to team up with vendors to provide discounted tablets based on income. Then poor students could buy them at a deep discount (or even be given one) while the rich students can buy their own.
          • Tablets don't really give you an educational advantage

            Why tablets? Why not laptops? You can type essays on laptops, manage documents on laptops, manipulate data more easily, and basically just do work. tablets on the other are more of a consumption device for watching videos and playing games. Fine, you can argue that people can get work done on a tablet, but then why iPads?? Why not windows tablets? windows tablets do have a desktop capability and because of their less popular app store, they have less games. In terms of price and functionality, why not kindles or nexus?
            Furthermore, when laptops became popular, schools didn't hand out free laptops, students started bringing them because they found it useful. If that is the case for tablets, then school don't need to push students to make that happen.
          • Re: why not laptops

            Because laptops, especially those with Windows, generally require way more care to stay "working" -- therefore are more expensive in the long run to maintain. A tablet, especially the iPad can be kept "proper" much easier.

            In this particular case, the troubles come from two things:
            - the inappropriate use of building bonds, which is intolerable; and
            - the inadequate provisioning of the iPads, which is inexcusable.

            Both can be attributed to poor planning and execution.

            Of course, iPads could have been replaced by any other tablet, with any other OS. Not much of these alternatives did exist when the project was planned and, for such a large scale project, one should not take big risks -- the iPad is (very) well known quantity, anything else is not.
          • ipads are entertainment consumption devices and not adequate...

            for school programs. The quality of an ipad build has nothing to do with the fact they are inadequate because something like a win8 pro tablet is needed so that students have access to real world applications and MS office.
            ipads are nothing more than the hardware end of itunes..
          • Your halfway right...

            Laptops are harder to maintain and that is way ChromeBooks or Windows RT devices are far better solutions. iPads are way more expensive than ChromeBooks and about half more than Surface RT. Both have MDM solutions to keep them configured and tracked. Both have keyboards/touchpads and ability to use mice (with Surface also having a touch interface).

            Etc and so on. iPads are just far more limiting in the education environment and far too expensive.
            Rann Xeroxx
          • bull crap

            you lock a laptop down properly on windows 7 + you will never have problems with it and the user cant interfere with it.

            You lock an iPad down and they just delete the profile.....

            please explain your logic?
          • Misinformed..

            You're making it sound like iPads are the reason for the failure- they can be locked down perfectly well if done right. The LA people chose not to use Apple's configuration tool for these first pilot schools which would literally re-ROM the device with a global proxy setting that can't be deleted because it was more work to manage. These first schools were running on iOS6 and the rest of the rollout is going to be on iOS7 which can now be managed in a similar way as the Apple config tool, but remotely.

            I think they chose to take their chances for the short term, knowing all of these devices would be upgraded and switched to the new security setup in October. Unfortunately the kids capitalized on their laziness very quickly, though they were all immediately caught because the deletion of the profile triggers a notification to the admin.

            The reasons for an iPad over a Windows computers are numerous, but the myth that students need Windows to run MS Office is ludicrous- there are plenty of other ways, most cheaper and easier to use, to design a word compatible document. Pages for iPad is now free with new iPads, and is far easier to use for students. I laugh when I hear the old guard talk about the need for a keyboard, my kids type on their onscreen keyboards faster than most people can type on a mechanical keyboard, and never complain about it. Giving them an onscreen keyboard is entirely optional.
            Dave Haupert
  • This is what happens . . .

    . . . when you put government in charge of the schools. We need Separation of Education and State.
    • Sadly

      This is what happen when you put government in charge of anything... Spending other people's money has always been easy. Let's hope those who devised this way of funding will be held accountable.
      • Sadder still.

        Is that every time these kinds of mistakes are made by government, the people at the top throw some poor low level person under the bus, and say "We have punished the person responsible for this mess!", and then those top people move on with zero consequences.
    • That's the model we had....

      ...200 years ago, and that's the model that is still prevalent in most "backwards countries" right now. If you want to see how well "100% privatization of schooling" goes, just send your kid to a Madrasa in Iran or Afghanistan.

      What we need is for people to stop trying to fix education in every conceivable possible way except the one way we all *know* would fix it: Get better teachers!

      We should have a unifying curriculum for everyone, so we stop teaching some version of creation-science to kids in Texas vs. cutting edge biology to kids in the Northeast. We should teach pre-calc to every High School graduate, and stop pretending that "no child left behind" means some kind of race to the bottom.

      I honestly don't know how many teachers I've talked to in the last few years decrying the need to teach to a test. What a bunch of MORONS. Honestly they are the bottom 25% of college graduates for a reason, and when they cry about stuff like that they are showcasing exactly how our education system got that way. They should be teaching to a higher standard - exceed the test. The tests are MINIMUM STANDARDS. They act like they're some kind of high plateau, but have any of you ever looked at what's on there? Holy cow, I could probably pass 90% of it without studying, and I've been out of school for 20+ years already!!

      We send our kids at a cost of $250k-$400k for 12 years and they come out of that process largely undereducated and full of crap. Ask any college professor about the quality of students in the last few years - especially those in community colleges that don't turn anyone away. I know of one local college where the top 10% of a local High School are basically ILLITERATE and are given remedial courses in Math and English. I am not exaggerating one little bit - they used to give a 2 year scholarship to these kids just for being in the top 10%, but now they changed their requirements and included a basic written exam!

      Holy cow, how can we let this continue year after year, class after class?

      Our society is literally getting dumber by the minute, less astute about even our own rights and history, more lazy about the things that would make our lives better.

      Sorry, FDanconia - I know you're coming from a good place, but I honestly believe that your idea of privatization, or even letting local gov't run schools is silly. Just from a cost perspective. half the costs are administrative. Do you know why? Because every single school/school district must have (is required) by every state to carry so and so many "fluff" jobs per kid, even if they only serve their kids 2 hours a month. Multiply that time how ever many schools/school districts you have. Then multiply that by the number of states. O yes, the numbers are staggering. And the more administration we have, the less money there's left for teachers. And that's how we end up with the bottom 25% going to schools.

      Studies have shown for decades now how our kids are competitive right up until 5th grade - and then something weird happens. They end up in the bottom percentile of the Western World by the time they graduate HS - and even those HS graduation requirements are largely a joke compared to the rest of the world. Germany - kids in Gymnasium, or roughly 30%, graduate HS with 2 foreign languages and calculus! Can anyone tell me what the percentage of US students with those skills at that age are? I would bet it's close to 0!