L.A. cancels iPads-in-the-schools program: a failure of vision, not technology

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When Apple landed a $30 million iPad contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in 2013, it was heralded as a big win for the company—after all, LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country. But the deal apparently didn’t earn straight As: Earlier this week, the district announced it was canceling its contract with the iPad maker.

According to the L.A. Times, the reason behind the cancelation was at least partially political, as “the superintendent and his top deputy had especially close ties to executives of Apple, maker of the iPad, and Pearson, the company that is providing the curriculum on the devices.” But an LAUSD report also found “major problems with the process and the implementation.”

The latter charges have been widely used as evidence that iPads were poorly suited for LAUSD—some have gone so far as to use them to criticize such programs in general. But many of the problems encountered in L.A. were due to a combination of Apple’s previously poor large-scale-deployment tools and LAUSD’s failure to follow Apple’s deployment guidelines.


When a hack is not a hack

Those failures had a rather public face: In the fall of 2013, news outlets reported that the iPads deployed in L.A. schools had been hacked. Though the term “hacked” was a misleading description of what actually happened, the story nevertheless gained traction.

The “hack” in question involved some students going into the iPad’s Settings app and removing the security profile installed by the district’s IT department. At the time, the only way to prevent this was to set each iPad up as a supervised device, a procedure that required a physical connection and an app called Apple Configurator. Was it feasible for LAUSD to perform a wired configuration procedure for thousands of devices? Probably not. Still, this wasn’t so much a failure of the iPad as it was the LAUSD not following Apple’s specified deployment guidelines.

Since that time, things have changed dramatically in terms of Apple’s support for large-scale deployments. By taking advantage of the Device Enrollment Program (DEP), schools can set their iPads up for a mobile device management (MDM) server out of the box, “securing” the tablets—and subsequently managing them—without having to physically connect to each of them. (In order to be enrolled in the DEP, schools must purchase those iPads directly from Apple. Thus, "bring your own devices" iPads can't be supervised over the air.)

Ahead of the class

Indeed, the apparent failure of LAUSD’s iPad program changes little in terms of best practices for future such deployments. Apple has committed to making the iPad simple to deploy and manage for all types of organizations—between the DEP and Apple’s managed-distibution app-purchasing model, Apple has taken all of the guesswork out of both small- and large-scale deployments.

Between DEP and managed distribution for apps, an IT staff can now place an order for 100,000 iPads and not even need to unbox them before distribution. Once a student connects the iPad to Wi-Fi, the tablet will automatically download the proper security-configuration profiles and be supervised over the air. IT administrators can even push and remove apps and various other configuration profiles remotely, using a central management system.

And keep in mind that the iPad is just over four years old—we’ve gone from basically no deployment tools to some very mature and powerful systems in just a few years. And Apple has also continued to add APIs for MDM vendors to implement with each version of iOS.

At the end of the day, LAUSD was simply a year too early for the type of easy deployment the district wanted—and it didn’t have an adequate plan, given the tools available at the time.

The vision thing

With iPad deployments, the first step to a successful project is proper vision. I co-host a podcast called Out of School with educator and Macworld contributor Fraser Speirs where we dive into these topics on a weekly basis. Earlier this year, we did a 15-week series where we walked listeners through the necessary steps for a successful deployment. But the key point is this: We didn’t start with the best Wi-Fi system or the best firewall—rather, we started with vision and leadership.

The failure of LAUSD’s iPad program isn’t that iPads (or any other devices the district may have chosen) weren’t a good fit. If there’s blame to be placed, it starts at the top. Deployments are only as good as the vision set forth before a Wi-Fi system or even a type of device is selected. If a school district isn’t going to follow Apple’s guidelines, it shouldn’t expect a successful project.

Apple does a lot of the legwork here by providing both the iPads and detailed guidelines for deployment. And other school districts around the world have documented their successes and failures. So when it comes to learning about best practices for deploying these devices in schools, it’s a simple matter of those in charge doing their homework.

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