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Students at Baldwin Hills Elementary School squeal with delight when they get new iPads for classroom work. 

American schools are buying big into the promise of digital learning, and many administrators are turning to tablets.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the largest to provide iPads for all. But the pilot program is wrought with complications, and came in millions of dollars over budget.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy had to fight to keep the program growing, saying access to technology is a "civil rights issue."

"I’m sick and tired of hearing that, because of the zip code you live in, you could possibly have something less," Deasy said at the start of the $50 million pilot program.

The snags started early: students quickly bypassed internet blocks (they simply deleted the security program), and many iPads were confiscated as a result. Other tablets have come up missing, and iPads are no longer allowed to go home with students.

A recent union survey reported classrooms use iPads fewer than a couple hours a week, or not at all. And many teachers and students say the Internet is just too slow and unreliable.  The district has scheduled $800 million in Wi-Fi upgrades this year.

But none of that matters to a class of second graders at Baldwin Hills Elementary School, who squeal with delight when iPads arrive.

"I couldn’t wait until I got here," says student Amora Hurlston. “I couldn’t sleep!”

Hurlston’s teacher, Jacqueline Porter-Morris, rolls the tablets out on a $2,300 charging cart where the iPads will be stored off hours in each classroom under lock and key.

"A lot of them don’t actually have technology at home so it’s going to open up a whole new world for them," Porter-Morris says, handing out tablets tagged with serial numbers and loaded with tracking software.

Porter-Morris says one-to-one iPads are the biggest change she's seen in 22 years of teaching. She hopes it will help with individualized instruction: Education software can give real time assessments, ideally allowing students to jump ahead a lesson, or stay behind for more targeted practice.

But researchers, such as Jane Margolis at UCLA, caution not to mistake technology for progress.

"We saw some schools that were aglow with technology, that were filled with computers," says Margolis, author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. "We identified that these schools were technology rich but curriculum poor."

There is scant research showing more classroom computers improve learning outcomes, and it’s often more of a question of what software is loaded on the device.

Lack of research hasn’t stopped other districts, such those in San Diego, Charlotte, and Las Vegas from growing their iPad fleet.

Schools in California are getting extra $1.25 million in state funds this year to spend preparing for new learning standards called Common Core, including adding computers so students can take the corresponding digital state test.

Some schools are opting for cheaper devices, such as Google Chromebooks, but L.A. schools’ iPad costs soar above other district’s deals at $768 a pop, when including education software from the global textbook giant Pearson.

The company has drawn criticism. Some critics, such as Oscar Menijva, say the software was rushed to the market in a beta stage without investment in the full potential of the digital platform.

"Basically you took your book and put it in a digital format," Menijvar, a former computer teacher, says. "How does that change learning for the students?"

That’s a pretty big question for a project that’s estimated to cost over a billion dollars in the L.A. school district alone.

On top of bandwidth and Wi-Fi upgrades, the financially strapped district will have to bear substantial costs for IT workers to keep the program online.

About the author

Annie Gilbertson is an Education Reporter for KPCC/Southern California Public Radio, covering the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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