September 15, 2014

Tablets in Schools—What’s Ahead in 2014


SLJ1401w_TK_NBTOne year ago, I predicted that 2013 would be a turning point for mobile hardware in schools and libraries. That’s held true. My forecast of sub-$100 tablets from top brands came close as well. Entry-level Acer Iconia Android tablets are about $107, and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD starts at $129.

But 2013 was not the year of the tablet in the way I expected. Perhaps I was foolish to think that schools would resist the fetishism of the iPad and hold off on the massive purchase of iPads and other tablets until there was an instructional use plan in place. Alas, no. Too many schools plunged in, too quickly, with 1:1 tablet initiatives.

This year, success stories will emerge. Districts that took the time to properly implement tablet rollouts will see results. If you’re in such a district, please write and share!

Yet the recent specter of Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) $1 billion iPad fiasco will likely set back many programs. That ill-fated rollout was plagued by cost overruns. In addition, students hacked the schools’ security system to access blocked social media sites, and several iPads went missing. This high-profile failure tarnished the concept of 1:1 tablet computing when that concept should be used as an excellent learning opportunity.

What went wrong at LAUSD, and how can your district avoid a similar fate? The biggest problems can be avoided with planning. First, the budget for the LAUSD program was unrealistically low. The projected tablet price was based on a bulk purchase of tablets, but a slow rollout with smaller purchases drove up costs.

A second issue was the naïve expectation that students would adhere to the security restrictions for using the devices. Not all hackers are destructive—some just want to explore. Districts can either lock devices down so severely that they are rendered unusable or plan on installing the only solution that has a hope of working: imparting ethics.

In the end, LAUSD seemingly sucumbed, like so many other schools, to the seductive lure of the hardware—so pretty, so shiny. But we must resist the siren call of tablets and focus instead on instructional objectives. Namely: Why are these devices being purchased? What pedagogical changes will be made because of them? How will learning and assessment make use of the new tools? Most important, where are we going to find content to fill the otherwise empty devices?

Twenty thirteen was the year of the tablet and good riddance, I say. Time to focus on the real reason to invest in any tool for learning: content and pedagogy. These should be the steps toward forging the path that may lead to a 1:1 tablet program, if that proves the right way to go.

You can get started right now. Set the stage for 1:1 learning by shifting pedagogy to small group and independent work. Drawing from your existing content, put in the time to create individual lesson plans rather than assigning the same project to the whole class.

While doing so, bear in mind that all of the following can be initiated without a tablet program: flipping instruction in a print world, engaging in analog blogging and social networking, and shifting to creation instead of consumption. When—not if—devices do show up, teachers and students will be all ready to go. This is the challenge for 2014.

Christopher Harris About Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris ( is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership.


  1. Christopher -
    You don’t provide any evidence to suggest that LAUSD succumbed to the lure of shiny new technology. Their rollout of iPads was certainly high profile, and no doubt, with such a large amount of money earmarked for the project and some problems, it’s the current poster child of school tech gone wrong. But I don’t think it’s entirely fair, and I do not believe their stumbles necessarily suggest, let alone prove, that their mission wasn’t placed in the best interest of students.

    Many of the 1:1 programs I have studied have had hiccups. We’re naive as adult educators if we think any one platform or price point is “perfect.” You are right – kids will push boundaries with new tools. I agree we might be able to do more to instill the proper culture to curb some of that – but the lure of beating the security I wager will always be there. It’s a good sign, I think, that kids want to even try – hacking a paper textbook doesn’t seem to warrant their attention.

    I also agree with focusing on content and pedagogy – or I might even say skills and pedagogy. Developing thinkers and problem-solvers would seem to be to be our highest priority, wherever we may live. But please don’t forget that in order to reach for the stratosphere (to borrow a term from Michael Fullan) we need to a) have patience as we attempt the change, and b) have the tools that can enable deeper and personal learning. If we’re only trying for book replacement, you might as well give up. Misguided is the person (politician, principal, or parent) who thinks that a one-time tablet purchase (either the cheapest you can find or the most blitzed-out model) is going to drastically change education. I have no tie with LAUSD, but I can imagine they’ve taken on a huge challenge and it will be a few years before we see the fruits of their efforts. The higher perceived cost of the Apple equipment is part of a trade off they accepted in affording some ease of management, the largest app catalog, and devices that work over a 4 year period. Now that they’ve made that choice, now that they have dove off the banks and into the water, I hope they have the talent in human capital to re-steer their ship into productive waters.

    That said – I do agree with your point that you don’t necessarily have to wait until you have the “stuff” – whatever tech you adopt – to get started with changing school climate and pedagogy. But the schools that have been successful with this shift finally get to where they want to be when it’s there, when it’s reliable, and when they have the support of their community.

    Personally, for all involved, I’d rather be a cheerleader for LA’s effort rather than writing their effort off as a loss so early in the game. If you or your readers want to read about a successful effort that was started in 2007, I’d recommend Mark Edwards’ book “Every Child Every Day” to read about how they found success (albeit with laptops, not tablets).

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