Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads

A student uses a tablet computer in a school classroom. Credit: Flickr by flickingerbrad

Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will receive 31,000 free iPads this school year under a new $30 million program launched by the district. The goal is to improve education and get them ready for the workforce with new technology skills they are not getting at home.

The first 31,000 iPads are only the initial phase of the program, which plans to buy and distribute iPads to all 640,000 students in the nation's second-largest school district by late 2014, Mark Hovatter, the chief facilities executive for the LAUSD, told CITEworld.

"The most important thing is to try to prepare the kids for the technology they are going to face when they are going to graduate," said Hovatter. "This is phase one, a mix of high school, middle school, and elementary students. We're targeting kids who most likely don't have their own computers or laptops or iPads. Their only exposure to computers now is going to be in their schools."

The first deployment phase is underway now in 49 of the district's 1,124 K-12 schools. Each student is receiving an iPad pre-loaded with educational applications and other programs that will be used by the students in their studies. By the official beginning of the new school year in August, all of the students in the first phase of the project will have their iPads and won't have to share them, said Hovatter. 

The project came about because educators realized that workers today in every field, including construction and automotive education, require skills with computers and related technologies, said Hovatter. "We are making sure that everyone is able to take a test electronically. Even in construction, you can't do those jobs now without having some familiarity with computers. Whatever jobs kids want to have, technology is likely involved. You're just not going to be able to do well in society if you don't have some experience."

The devices will also make education more interactive for the students, said Hovatter. Using the iPads, students and their teachers can better plan and synchronize scheduling, share reference videos and news events, use interactive lessons, and conduct digital reading tests that can be adjusted based on each student's performance and reading levels.

As part of the project, digital textbooks will be delivered to the iPads through an arrangement with educational books publisher Pearson. Students will also be able to read other books for class assignments using the devices. The digital books also will help the district save money over buying traditional paper-based textbooks, but that wasn't a main goal of the project.

The decision to buy iPads for the district's students came after a long and detailed review process, said Hovatter. "We looked at lots of options that went out with the RFP. We were not just buying a device, but also a device with software" aimed at the students and their needs.

Twelve proposals came in from vendors, including Apple, Samsung, and others, with all proposals being reviewed by a team of 30 people who looked at every angle of the project, from security to device ruggedness to networking and more, said Hovatter. Apple was chosen as the only vendor for the project rather than mixing various types of devices to make it easier to maintain the related IT systems.

So far the project is going smoothly, but many more iPads have to be purchased and deployed before the full rollout is completed next year.

The response from the students who have received their iPads and are using them for their school work has been sobering, said Hovatter.

"They are great reactions," he said. "They are very excited. We started in schools in neighborhoods where kids didn't have that much exposure to computers in the past. Their parents are excited that the schools are investing in their kids."

To buy the first 31,000 devices, the school district is using $30 million in tax money, but the district is looking for other means to fund much of the rest of the effort, said Hovatter. "We're hoping that will get a lot of private donors," he said.

Apple first announced the deal last month, and commented on it during its quarterly earnings call on Tuesday.

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