Monday, October 28, 2013

One Tablet Per Child in Redlands?

Rwanda's OLPC vs. LAUSD's iPad initiative vs. Redlands USD's Dell Laptop decision.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) policy is the foundation of what Rwandan President Paul Kagame hopes will make Rwanda into a tech hub of Africa. If Rwanda can provide one laptop per child, shouldn't we be able to do that in the US? And if laptops are being replaced by tablets, shouldn't we be able to provide one tablet per child?

Redlands Unified School District board just voted to purchase Dell Laptops, deciding laptops are the best solution for this district. As a member of the Finance Committee at Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands (a private school), I'm taking a sharp look at the OLPC and OTPC (One Tablet Per Child) movements.

First, Rwanda's program is not without criticism. They are struggling to deal with issues of theft and student distraction. OLPC program officials want the devices to go home. However, to prevent theft and to deal with parent complaints that laptops are a distraction at home, some teachers lock up the laptops at school. Still, kids have been caught playing video games like "Doom" during class.

Los Angeles Unified School District entered into a contract with Apple to purchase iPads and special education software for all students and teachers this year. The rollout of this initiative has been plagued with problems.

LAUSD's Problems

Here is a list of some of the problems that have arisen to date in LAUSD:

Is Apple Enterprise-Ready?

Apple famously flopped in the business computing market with the Apple III. There has been a long-standing contempt of the business market at Apple, that started changing in recent years due to their success with iPhones and iPads. However, recent iPad sales have been declining, precipitously. Apple may have reached a point where competitors, like Microsoft & Samsung, take the market from them, just like Android took over the smartphone market that the iPhone created.

Therefore, Apple has never catered to enterprise-wide deployment of their devices and software. And it shows. The iPad security issues in the LAUSD (and even the keyboard issue, I believe) are a symptom of this problem. Schools (including colleges and universities) that have attempted to integrate Apple products into their enterprise network have experienced a number of problems. One of the most discouraging, for me, is the inability to re-issue textbooks to new students each year.


Locking down the devices

  • Yes, we should attempt to lock down the devices. However, even more important than preventing kids from browsing the Internet and playing games, we need to do our best to keep the child's information secure. This is information that could be abused to harm a student, potentially from a predator outside the school system, a bully inside the school, or a malicious school employee.
  • Signed Agreement - have the parent (for legal reasons) & student (for psychological reasons) sign an agreement regarding the use of technology. The parent should understand that they are responsible for how their child uses a device and they should understand what they need to do to keep their child safe and productive. In corporate environments, signing an agreement about how technology can be used is common.
  • Devices can be physically locked down, stored in a cart where they can charge overnight, and kept securely in the classroom. (At least as securely as anything else in the classroom - there will be break-ins).
  • Reward the hackers, don't punish them. If a student is clever enough to hack the device, and they report the vulnerability to the district (and don't publicize the exploit), they should be rewarded. The reward should be attractive, especially as the system becomes harder to crack. We should expect a student to hack the system, to gain access to teacher or administrator passwords. The trick is how we deal with that.
(There is a good fictional example of a High School student hacking a laptop, and of student information being abused by malicious school employees, in Cory Doctorow's novel, Little Brother).

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing has security concerns. They are concerns the industry is dealing with every day, but the biggest security concern is always the person who is accessing the system. Putting responsibility on the student to use a complex password, to remember it and keep private, may not be workable. Biometric security is not advanced enough to be secure (as I discussed in an earlier post on the iPhone 5S). So, the cloud should be used carefully.

Working with web/based apps and storing class projects in a Cloud that is accessible from home could be great. However, sensitive information about that child needs to be kept secure. Essay's may reveal private information about a student. Requiring tertiary authentication might be a requirement (like a home banking system where you are presented with a picture, etc.). So, the parts of the cloud accessible from home may need to be limited compared to what's accessible from the classroom.

Look to Windows Laptops & Tablet/Laptop Hybrids (coming soon)

  • Laptops have keyboards (critical for compliance with Common Core curriculum and testing), and there are a number of good manufacturers of Windows laptops. They also have USB ports.
  • Tablet/Laptop Hybrids, like the Surface Pro 2 and Samsung Ativ tablets, either come with or integrate well with keyboards and run Windows. The Tablets sometimes run a special version of Windows 8, and TrueCrypt does not yet support any version of Windows 8, but these Tablet/Laptop Hybrids bear close watching over the next couple years.
  • Microsoft has long dominated the Enterprise Software market, and they have great tools for centrally managing all the laptops. This includes tools to quickly set up new hardware (i.e., "imaging" a new laptop to install all the software automatically), and tools to centrally install new software for existing laptops on the network, and to centrally push out software updates, such as security updates. Even a laptop that is turned off can be automatically awakened to apply such updates.

Work out the E-Book licensing issue

One of my biggest reasons for wanting tablets is to eliminate those heavy, bulky, and often outdated textbooks. I've been concerned for years about the health impact of carrying heavy textbooks. However, there needs to be a good solution to the licensing issue. If books need to be reissued to students every year, buying a whole new license for every student is just too costly.


Technology is not a solution to biggest problems facing education today, because it doesn't directly address the problem. The problem is Poverty. This is from an NPR interview with Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education:
Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today. One of those would be to have reduced class sizes in the schools that serve the children of poverty. Another would be to have universal pre-kindergarten. We should have a strong arts program in every one of these schools, because children have to have a reason to come to school other than just to be tested.
Poverty is definitely an issue in the LAUSD, as it is in the high-profile Philidephia School District. Putting technology in schools is something I believe in, but there are some very basic funding issues in schools that I think we need to deal with first, and laptops will not reduce the need for more teachers and more staff in these poverty-stricken districts. Laptops can be part of a solution, but it's not going to miraculously revolutionize public school education without spending money on a lot of other areas. This is likely also true, if not more true, in Rwanda.

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