Technology: what could often be the best friend of educators is usually treated as their worst enemy. Even when school districts make potentially positive steps, they're often undone by either the paranoia that giving kids access to the outside world will be permanently destructive or by failing to understand the consequences, especially the unintended ones, of putting technology in the hands of their students.
Case in point: the rollout (and now, possible rollback) of iPads to Los Angeles schools.
Following news that students at a Los Angeles high school had hacked district-issued iPads and were using them for personal use, district officials have halted home use of the Apple tablets until further notice.
It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Theodore Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.
"Outside of the district's network ... a user is free to download content and applications and browse the Internet without restriction," two senior administrators said in a memo to the Board of education and L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. "As student safety is of paramount concern, breach of the ... system must not occur."
The only way the school district did not see this coming is through institutional blindness. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it expected students to use the devices only
as intended, even
when completely unsupervised. This is built on the assumption that instructions are rarely questioned and limits are rarely tested. The administrators aren't stupid but they are prone to believing their authority has more influence on students than it actually does. (This isn't completely unlike the blindness exhibited by parents who take very active steps to raise their kids to be drug and alcohol-free. and then are shocked
when their kids experiment with the forbidden substances anyway.)
The second issue here is how easily the "protection" was hacked.
Roosevelt students matter-of-factly explained their technique Tuesday outside school. The trick, they said, was to delete their personal profile information. With the profile deleted, a student was free to surf.
Soon they were sending tweets, socializing on Facebook and streaming music through Pandora, they said.
This indicates that whoever approved this deal (and its attendant protection scheme) truly didn't understand the technology... or greatly underestimated their opponent. Allowing the students to take the iPads home with them only sped up the process.
So, the question the district needs to ask itself is: does it want students to have a potentially useful tool that could further education, even off campus (and possibly "compromised")? Or does it want to treat the iPads like shiny books and lock them down further?
If the district wants the students to use the iPads to their full potential, then it has to accept the fact that they won't always be used the way it wants them to. Otherwise, it can lock them down with better security and keep them in the classroom, thus reducing their utility to that of any paper textbook -- only less so, considering students can take textbooks home. There's not a whole lot of middle ground. Expanding the iPads usefulness means reliquishing some control.
Schools tend to view "unapproved" use as something unequivocally bad, but the fact is, given the right incentives, students can think critically and solve problems, even the sort of "problems" (locking down devices) school districts tend to view as "essential" to ensure students' safety. This whole situation is full of "teachable moments," but sadly, it appears as though the district is just going to shut this down until it can figure out how to outsmart its students.
L.A. Unified School District Police Chief Steven Zipperman suggested, in a confidential memo to senior staff obtained by The Times, that the district might want to delay distribution of the devices.
"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."
Yes, a nightmarish world of kids listening to music and interacting on social media will be inevitable unless the district shuts this program down.
Maybe, rather than using this breach as an excuse to step back into the past, the district could move forward. For instance, why not turn hacking into a postive experience, rather than a punishable offence? Install a new
protection scheme and invite students to hack it. Have them detail the steps they took to deduce the weak spots, the research they performed to find possible solutions, and finally, map out the hacking process(es) itself. Then repeat. The district will learn something as well -- the untapped ingenuity of its students and the best ways to approach future protection schemes. And the students will be rewarded for exercising little used skills like logic, creativity and persistance.
It's all a matter of perspective. Reading Scott McLeod's "26 Internet Safety Talking Points"
would go a long way towards turning this situation into a net positive for the district. Especially the last one
Educating is always, always more powerful than blocking.
There's a win to be had here, but only if the district wants it. And judging from the two statements it's made, it would rather opt for more control.