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iPads vs. Teachers — Why Technology is Winning

Why are cash-starved school districts sending public funds to Apple while laying off teachers? Follow the money.

Photo Credit: Amat


The Brave New World is officially here — and it’s not just new, it’s also expensive and, at best, unproven.

That’s the news of the last few weeks in the world of education. In Europe, there is the launch of “Steve Jobs schools” where, according to  Der Spiegel, “the entire education experience (is) offered via tablet computer” and where “there will be no blackboards, chalk or classrooms, homeroom teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, seating charts, pens, teachers teaching from the front of the room, schedules, parent-teacher meetings, grades, recess bells, fixed school days and school vacations.” In these Apple utopias, if “a child would rather play on his or her iPad instead of learning, it’ll be okay.”

Back here at home, a similar transformation is happening — albeit at a slower pace — in school districts that are spending big money to give iPads to every student. Indeed, following  smaller districts from across the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest in the nation —  just generated big headlines by becoming one of the  600 districts handing over public money to Apple in exchange for iPads.

How much money, you ask? In Los Angeles, many millions of dollars. If that sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is, thanks to the hard-to-estimate total costs of all the variables in technologizing schools. In L.A., for instance, school officials approved an initial $50 million in bonds (read: public debt) to finance the first stage of its iPad-for-every-student program. However, according to the  Los Angeles Daily News, those officials quietly acknowledge that the plan will cost a whopping half-billion dollars when fully implemented.

Such massive expenses are, to say the least, alarming — especially in school districts that are simultaneously ramping up their spending on technology and slashing funding for traditional education investments like teachers and infrastructure.

Los Angeles, again, is a good example; the same school district that is going to spend a half-billion dollars on iPads has been  laying off teachers. To justify those layoffs, the school districts have been citing a  $543 million district budget shortfall, yet somehow, those same officials apparently don’t cite that same budget shortfall as a reason to avoid spending $500 million on iPads. Why? Because education technology triumphalists typically portray iPads as long-term cost cutters for school districts.

As the  New York Times sums up that argument, these triumphalists believe iPads and attendant iBooks will “save money in the long run by reducing printing and textbook costs.” The enticing idea is that schools may have to invest huge money upfront, but they will supposedly see huge savings in out years.

The trouble is that there is little evidence to suggest that’s true, and plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite is the case.

As respected education consultant  Lee Wilson notes in a report breaking down school expenses, “It will cost a school 552% more to implement iPad textbooks than it does to deploy books.” He notes that while “Apple’s messaging is the idea that at $14.99 an iText is significantly less expensive than a $60 textbook,” the fact remains that “when a school buys a $60 textbook today they use it for an average of 5-7 years (while) an Apple iText it costs them $14.99 per student – per year.” As Lee notes, that translates into iBooks that are 34 percent more expensive than their paper counterparts — and that’s on top of the  higher-than-the-retail-store price school districts are paying for iPads.

As I pointed out in a  newspaper column last year:

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