Last year, 40 tablet computers were delivered to the children of two remote Ethiopian villages. The villagers were 100 percent illiterate—the kids had never seen road signs, product labels, or printed material of any kind.
Technicians from the One Laptop Per Child program dropped off a stack of boxes, showed a couple of adults how to use the solar chargers, and then walked away. Within minutes, the kids had cracked the packaging open and figured out how to turn the tablets on. Within weeks, they were singing their ABCs, picked up from the English-language learning software installed on the tablets. Within five months, some kid figured out that the tablets had built-in cameras—they had been disabled for ethical reasons—and hacked the Android operating system to activate them.
So, frankly, it shouldn't have come as much of a shock when a few hundred of the tech-drenched children of Los Angeles figured out how to "hack" the $678 iPads they were given by their school district, just one month into the new school year.
In recent weeks, Los Angeles distributed iPads to 50,000 students in the public school system as part of a pilot for a $1 billion citywide initiative. Kids at Westchester High, one of the few schools that allowed students to take their tablets home, quickly noted that they could bypass the district-installed security filter with two clicks, allowing them to access banned sites like YouTube and Facebook.
One of the student hackers—if two clicks can be called "hacking"—was Westchester High valedictorian candidate Brian Young, who was hauled into the principal's office for a dressing-down. "He wasn't threatening me, but he told me millions of dollars of technology had been compromised because of me," Young told the Los Angeles Times. Young said he fiddled with the security settings innocently, after having trouble getting online at home. Apparently, the iPads are configured to work well only on the limited in-school network. Young said he'd hoped to download some apps that the school's network couldn't handle or didn't permit. We don't know whether young Young was looking to download something to help with his math homework or whether he was pursuing … other extracurricular activities. But that didn't stop school administrators and local media from panicking.
L.A. Unified School District Police Chief Steven Zipperman fretted in a confidential memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times that students would share their "hacks" via social media. "I'm guessing this is just a sample of what will likely occur on other campuses once this hits Twitter, YouTube, or other social media sites explaining to our students how to breach or compromise the security of these devices," Zipperman wrote. "I want to prevent a 'runaway train' scenario when we may have the ability to put a hold on the roll-out."
But why would students gaining mastery over their digital devices be considered a "runaway train" at all? The iPads were loaded with software from the textbook giant Pearson, so perhaps the fantasy was that high school students would be content paging through glowing versions of their textbooks.
But the whole point of introducing current technology into the classroom is to help education catch up with the rest of the world, which has been utterly transformed by fast computers with fast Internet access.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technology in education, traditional schools tend to use fuzzy math. Give 'em iPads, the thinking goes, and the test scores will soar. The intended mechanism isn't always clear, and the vision becomes even more muddled when the inevitable committees, unions, and concerned parents get involved. The result too often is restricted access to semi-useless tech crippled by proprietary software deals and censored Internet.
Implementing bold ideas like "flipping the classroom"—having students watch lectures at home and spending their classroom hours doing problem sets, engaging in group discussions, or getting one-on-one tutorials—means letting kids use the relevant tech on their own time and in their own way. It means trusting them with access to devices like the ones they might someday use at work.
Schools are supposed to be places of free inquiry, where kids seek knowledge and debate ideas in a safe space. Limiting access to such basic sites like YouTube signals that kids can't be trusted to make their own decisions—about information sources or time management.
One of the most famous innovations in online learning to date is Khan Academy, which offers thousands of tutorials on subjects from A to Z. What site does Khan use to host those lessons? YouTube. Sorry, L.A. school kids!
One Laptop Per Child considered the Ethiopian kids' hack a success. "The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids' [sic] tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that," a contrite Ed McNierney, OLPC's chief technology officer, told the MIT Technology Review. "And the fact that they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning."
On Oct. 1, LAUSD pronounced its ed tech experiment temporarily out of control and admitted that several schools were in the process of attempting to pry the new tablets from their students' clammy hands.
Los Angeles should take a page from OLPC's lesson book. School officials say the project has not been halted and that schools are still on track to distribute another 300,000 tablets next fall. But unless administrators are willing to radically rethink their goals for the billion-dollar tech initiative in the coming months, a few hundred kids figuring out how to customize their iPads may just be the most beneficial result.
This article appeared earlier in Slate.