Memo to Microsoft: When it comes to Surface tablets in the classroom, be careful what you wish for. Because you might be the next victim of education’s Curse of the Bright Shiny.

Much has been made of the news that the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bold billion dollar bid to give every one of roughly 640,000 students an iPad has already gone sideways. Less than a month after the first group received their Apple tablets, schools have forbidden kids from taking them home and a few have recalled them entirely. All because a number of high-school students “hacked” (quotes mine) the security “restrictions” (ditto) so they could visit websites and services the district had blocked. You know, subversive sites, like Facebook and YouTube.

And “hacked” is in quotation marks because all some students had to do was delete their user profile from the iPad to roam the Internet without limits. This outwitting is a demonstration of advanced technological skills more worthy of Bart Simpson than Bill Gates.

Amplify tablet, Gorilla optional

The L.A. kids weren’t even the first to jailbreak their school-issued iPads. Students in Indiana reportedly did it even earlier in the school year.

Lest you think tablet failure on a potentially massive scale is just because they’re, well, mere consumer-centric iPads, I direct you to Amplify Education’s specially designed Android tablets for schools. In Amplify’s case, 15,000 of its tablets were pulled out of service and idled this month in North Carolina’s Guilford County middle schools.

The problem in that $30 million deployment wasn’t security or software. It was faulty hardware. A charger reportedly overheated and melted, and the new tablets themselves have had an astronomical breakage rate of 10 percent – in part, the district claims, because the tablet screens were not made with Gorilla Glass as had been specified.

Now Microsoft, I know you want this huge K-12 education market for the Surface. You haven’t exactly been coy about it. In June, you announced you’d give away up to 10,000 Surface RT tablets to teachers attending the International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio. Then, you ran a promotion cutting the price of the Surface RT by hundreds of dollars (to as low as $199) for schools. Good grief, you even offered to give schools free Surface RT tablets for stooping to using, of all things, Bing (I had to Google it).

But before you pine for a greater share of tens-of-thousands-of-tablets adoptions like those in L.A. or North Carolina, consider these two lessons from these early school year debacles:

This Dumbo shouldn't drop tech
This Dumbo shouldn’t drop tech

Dumbo Drops don’t work. Throwing technology at a problem does less to solve it than to smartly cover it up. While there are those so-called education reformers, politicians and tech entrepreneurs who think student learning issues will somehow be magically addressed when devices drop out of the sky and onto student desks, the reality is far more complex.

Tech just can’t be imposed. It has to be integrated. Thoughtful education news site The Hechinger Report cites insiders who claim L.A. officials rushed to spend money and provided little support to teachers on how to use the iPads in class (and clearly, less-than-solid security).

It’s not that this hasn’t happened before. Roughly a decade ago, L.A. district officials made a $50 million dollar purchase of well-regarded reading software and computers on which to run it. When the young students didn’t seem to be doing much better, an investigation turned up that teachers hadn’t been trained on how to set up and use the program, the software wasn’t used enough, hardware broke and was not repaired, and – as I personally recall – software and PCs were found in back rooms long after the initiative began, still in shrink wrap.

(I will admit that some actually like the creative chaos that can ensue. Take Nicholas Negroponte, who last year bragged – with no way to independently confirm the claim – that a Dumbo Drop of his One Laptop Per Child computers in Ethiopia actually led to the kids figuring out how to use them and teach themselves. But that’s more kids-as-lab-rats experimentation than structured education.)

The Microsoft alternative
The Microsoft alternative

Tech demands a backup plan. The moral of the North Carolina story is more clear and straightforward. Devices break. Expect devices in new environments to break in new and spectacular ways. One hopes that Guilford County, even though it had planned to give every student a tablet in what’s called a “one-to-one” device initiative, hadn’t recycled its paper textbooks yet. And won’t for a while.

So Microsoft, don’t succumb – or let your education customers succumb – to a lure that becomes a curse of bright-shiny blindness. Devices alone don’t an education make. The approach some districts take to tablets now would, a generation ago, have been like plopping a computer on every desk in an office with no instructions on how to complete work with them, while simultaneously removing all ledgers, pens and typewriters. In education, a digital device without clear purpose and plan becomes a blunt object with which to bludgeon learning.

Those who do not learn from tech disasters are doomed to repeat them. Education technology history can be a lot like shampoo: Just rinse it clean from your mind, and mindlessly repeat.

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  • Forrest Corbett

    Personally I think kids “hacking” their tablets should be embraced, not discouraged. Learning how technology works and how to modify it is only going to get more important as time goes on. An educational system that thinks creative thinking, problem solving… are problems that need to be restricted and hindered, really has much bigger problems than which tablet to provide their students with.

    • DaMarico Fowler

      It is not creative to hack something because one can or in every circumstance. If this were a computer course than fine but I doubt that is what these devices were use for.

      • Forrest Corbett

        Why should it be limited to a computer course? “Hacking” or “work-arounds” apply everywhere. This reminds me of some teachers years ago who wouldn’t let students use calculators. The reasoning was that students wouldn’t have access to calculators in the real world. Yet, here we are and pretty much everyone carries a pretty powerful calculator around with them.

        If, in the real world, we left “hacking” to the role of computer science, then sites like “life hacker” wouldn’t even exist. And while hacking may not be creative in every instance, it’s still problem solving.

        In the real world, if I don’t know something I can hire someone who does, or I can research it online… there’s a plethora of workarounds. The ability to do so shouldn’t just be confined to one specific class.

        • DaMarico Fowler

          One life hacker is a silly term. Yes I know work arounds exist and I am not puritanical to the point where technology should be the exclusive domain of CS majors. However these hacks are not so high endeavors as to see what a device does as to access stuff they shouldn’t. I can guarantee you many of these students did it to do something mundane as watch Naruto or play a flash game. The tablets in these cases are to enhance learning which means they have natural locks on them so students don’t go off.

          • Forrest Corbett

            If kids are just going to waste their time with them, locking them down isn’t going to change their mentality. That’s like locking down a campus so no kids can leave during school hours, just because some kids cut class. Meanwhile those who want to do running start are locked in too.

            Go visit a jail sometime and talk to the inmates. You’ll find out they’re full of smart, creative people who had those skills continually blocked. Kids need their creativity and problem solving efforts embraced, not blocked.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      It’s pretty clear it was less of a true “hack” and more of a simple workaround, at least for some students. That said, Audrey Watters (of the appropriately named Hack Education site) wrote a good piece in the Atlantic that addresses the pros of hacking the tech: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/students-are-hacking-their-school-issued-ipads-good-for-them/280196/

      • Forrest Corbett

        Good read. Thanks.

    • Brenden

      That was my thought when the story broke. But probably just one kid figured out to delete the profile and everyone else just cribbed.

  • Mathew Georghiou

    Given the amount of scrutiny we go through to sell our much more modest educational products and services to schools, I cannot imagine how some of these issues get missed during the planning stages. It’s like there is more oversight on a $1,000 sale than a $10 million sale.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but there may be little glory for policy makers or high-level administrators in championing “modest” educational products and services. But cool hardware parents understand? Bring it on. Perhaps.

  • ab

    Frank, This is no surprise to me. When our HS gave all students laptops, the first thing all students did was unlock the sites they wanted to go to with work arounds. And for the most part, students played games, plugged into social media and did very little educationally aside from reading their textbooks online. For those reasons, we gave ours back half way through the first year and had our kids officially sign them back out when needed for a class. Unfortunately they only had to sign them out a few times, which revealed the lack of use by the teachers.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Sharon, I wish that was more rare. There’s been a lot of good work done on how to thoughtfully introduce tech into teaching and learning (ProjectRed.org comes to mind, and there are several other efforts). What continues to surprise me is how little consideration is given, by some, on what to do on an ongoing basis after the buying decision is made. Makes no difference if it’s tablets, or interactive white boards, or in-classroom televisions. Intelligent use of tech to support learning is a process, not just a purchase.

  • umbrarchist

    What is “kids as lab rats” works better than “structured education”? A kid with a tablet can concentrate on what he wants that is in the tablet. But add a teacher and it becomes teacher knows best even if the teacher is a dummy.

    Maybe the problem with “education” is structure. In 50 years our educators can’t suggest something as simple as a National Recommended Reading List.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      It’s a big “if” (or “is,” but I suspect you meant “if”). Some research has shown that many students view smartphones and tablets as entertainment devices, primarily, and don’t think of them in terms of educational tools. On the flip side, there are indeed tech-savvy teachers who know how to guide (versus control) student learning. The ideal situation is student-centered learning guided, but not dominated, by trained educators using devices as tools. That’s a best-case scenario.

      • umbrarchist

        So what? What if only 10% or 5% benefit from educational software on tablets? Doesn’t the educational system mostly try to cram almost everyone into the same level of mediocrity? Plus there is the matter of their not having tablets from kindergarten. Ten years from now will 15 year olds treat tablets the way 15 year olds do today?

        The brain wiring created by instant feedback in 5 year olds will be different 10 years later. We may be creating a new culture that has never existed before. It’s The SINGULARITY! LOL

  • andrew fleming

    Tablets and computers are so much a part of our day to day lives, that many children learn to navigate touchscreen phones, computers and tablets even before they begin to read.I am really thankful to the author of this post for making this lovely and informative article live here for us. We really appreciate ur effort.Keep up the good work. . . .


  • Solution Found

    Have you seen the TabPilot classroom tablet management system? It runs on android tablets and solves ALL of these problems. tabpilot.com

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Sorry: Nothing solves “all of these problems.” Except people. Not yet another imposed technology.

  • Community Liaison

    I think that Amplify’s idea is good, but their service sucks! They dont have people skills, they never answer phones and when finally they answer they dont even know who you are and answer with questions . They refuse to give me a quote because my school numbers were to low. I was testing them but I guess they are all for the money !! Not for the real service! Maybe that why Amplify’s case, 15,000 of its tablets were pulled out of service and idled this month in North Carolina’s Guilford County middle schools.

  • http://www.edresources.com/ Educational Resources

    The problem with the shiny-object syndrome is exactly that, too many companies and schools fail to look beyond the object and into the actual use of the technology. Fancy and expensive hardware options alone are not enough (as shown by both the LAUSD and Amplify deals). In both of these scenarios, a product that was designed for consumers were placed in an enterprise, education setting and they didn’t work. One could blame security, one could blame fragile hardware not meant for the wear and tear of a classroom and backpack environment, or one could say that the companies involved didn’t truly “get” what the schools needed, and the schools didn’t know what they
    didn’t know….yet.

    Being an education tablet requires much greater forethought than just throwing an “education discount” on a price list and it also requires more than just putting a fun colored rubber bumper on the tablet. Painting a 2 door sedan yellow doesn’t make it a good school bus, and educators and car manufacturers know this…so why the disconnect with

    There are decision makers throughout the system that look towards the products they use in their daily lives to help them make decisions about what to help the students they influence with on a daily basis. As consumers we have become “app-ified” to the nth degree. There is an app for this, for that, for everything, and in our stream of consciousness lives that works great. I want a phone or a tablet that can do everything so I have one device that is the swiss-army knife of technology. That very approach though is what challenges technology in the classroom. More choices equals more distraction. Wide-open platforms equal more time to explore and possibly to “break” or “hack” the system. Apps have been elevated to the status of instructors since they are the only thing easily put on enterprise tablets thus moving the teachers to the background instead of
    the facilitators of instruction that they are.

    Some teachers are able to work in a wide-open environment and be the guide on the side, but when we look at the teaching profession as a whole, they are nervous when it comes to wide-open technologies such as consumer tablets, because they can’t keep the students focused. That’s why some of these schools actually make signs to hang in the classrooms whether the “tablet” will be needed in class today or not. It’s a very powerful tool that is allowed to be a toy because it offers the entire world, which to students is a great alternative to
    a boring history lecture.

    If we want tablets to be successful, then we need to look towards companies that understand education. Not just from a hardware standpoint, but from a pedagogical standpoint. HOW do teachers learn to use the tools they have in the classroom? WHAT resources and initial restrictions on the devices need to be in place so the teachers can catch up to the students? WHY can’t the teachers continue to use their existing curriculum resources for instruction (that they already feel comfortable with) and then after they feel comfortable go and get apps to supplement the instruction instead of replacing it? WHEN will companies stop putting shiny coats of paint or bumpers or price reductions on their consumer products and actually listen to what the customers
    truly want (even if they don’t know it yet) rather than what the company has already on the shelves?

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that physiological and safety/security needs MUST be taken into account before self-actualization can ever be reached. Start with a tablet that is focused, secured, directed, using resources teachers have already had, and then let the education system grow WITH the tablet as you continue to open up your instruction. That is the definition of a tool, it does the job you need it to RIGHT NOW. In a skilled users hands, it can do a lot more. But skills have to be taught and learned, not “implemented”.

    Chris Klein
    Director – Tablet Solutions and Services
    LearnPad “Purpose Built for Education” Tablet Solution


    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Actually, it does need to be “implemented,” which implies it’s actually intelligently integrated into instructional practice. It doesn’t need to be “dropped,” which appears is often what’s happening now. So I agree with your sentiment, if not perhaps the exact wording.

  • Zeshaan Hussain

    well why not have some kind of “unique” tablet which is state issued towards the students which does not come with applications of such kind? I really don’t understand why they would go with using iPads instead of some other type of device. An issued tablet with just Microsoft Office seems well enough for a student to save his or her data throughout the day and return to their notes the next day they walk into class. Furthermore, it would be even great if students could take notes with such devices with the help of a digital stylus.

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