It started with a move by resourceful students who were able to unlock security settings on their iPads.
The disastrous $1 billion iPad rollout by the Los Angeles Unified School District in September 2013 provided a cautionary tale to districts looking to spend public dollars on technology and digital curriculum. But below the surface of the news stories were thousands of kids feeling hurt by the way they were portrayed by the media and the school district’s lack of trust in them.
To explore the aftermath of the scandal that put them front and center of that cautionary education technology tale, students at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights conducted their own research on how the rollout was handled, talking to peers and family members and ultimately painting a very different picture of the lasting consequences.
Many students at Roosevelt felt the news media had mischaracterized their school and its students as criminals for figuring out how to get around the iPad’s security features, often to access educational information.
“We were really caught up in how they kept calling Roosevelt ‘hackers,’” said Daniela Carrasco, a former student.
Teens noticed their school was continually picked out as the focal point of news articles, even though several other schools, such as Westchester High and the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills, experienced the same problems.
Roosevelt students chose to investigate the lingering effects of the iPad rollout as part of a program called Council of Youth Research, a participatory research project started by two UCLA professors. The participatory research model recognizes that people living within a context have just as much to add to research as outside academics. Researchers train young people on social theories during the summer and help them apply research methodologies to their school communities to investigate aspects of education that matter to their lives.
“Having young people break down these social theories and applying it to what’s going on today … their analysis blew me away,” said Elexia Reyes McGovern, who encountered the project as a doctoral student and volunteers as a mentor. McGovern helped facilitate the research and discussion that Roosevelt students conducted on the iPad rollout.
Originally students considered researching how the school schedule might shift to better suit students’ needs, but “the theme of the iPads just kept coming up,” McGovern said. It was clearly a topic of conversation between students and their teachers, loaded with unexplored feelings.
“We were hoping to get students’ insights, not just the newscasts and what LAUSD was saying,” said Carrasco, one of the young women who conducted the research as a high school senior last year. Now she’s in college on the East Coast. She and her co-researchers wanted to find out how students felt about the way the media portrayed their school and what they felt could have been done differently.
“In the L.A. Times they did an article about us and about how the iPads were hacked,” said Mariela Bravo, another student-researcher. “The comments hurt. I have pride in my school and it was really bad. We were the example of why they shouldn’t give [the iPads] to us.”
Bravo doesn’t understand why the district would give students iPads with so many limitations. Her peers were looking up homework help on YouTube — and yes, checking Facebook, too — but that’s part of life.
“They have to trust us more,” Bravo said. “We could surprise them and they could see that we are good kids.”
Students were frustrated that the district couldn’t see that negotiating distractions on the Internet is part of life now. “We should have been trusted with those websites,” Carrasco said. “Instead of blocking them, there should have been emphasis on how to use those websites for good.”
The mishandled rollout, the backlash and the media coverage all added up to make Roosevelt students feel like they didn’t matter.
“A lot of the young people felt like they were an experiment,” McGovern said, “and that happens a lot in urban schools.”
Students could see the rollout was being handled poorly and that teachers didn’t know what to do with the iPads. Carrasco even noted that students were supposed to fill out paperwork before getting their iPads, but teachers started handing out the devices before anything had been signed. “There was a real authenticity to their research,” McGovern said. “It impacted them and hit close to home.”
Even worse than the botched rollout, students were hurt by how the public reacted to the news. “When they were researching this, they were very affected by the comments [on news articles],” McGovern said. The teens found hateful comments about “poor Mexicans girls getting pregnant young,” who don’t deserve iPads. The comments are no longer visible on the website because they weren’t archived or became inaccessible, according to Deirdre Edgar, Readers’ Representative for the L.A. Times. But Roosevelt students were keeping track. A blog kept by the Roosevelt High School newspaper highlights some of the most offensive comments, like this one posted by “PowerfulPeace” on October 1, 2013:
“What on God’s green earth would posses some liberal school board numbskull to OKay handing out the stewardship of such valuables to ghetto urchins? Of COURSE they will never see the “missing” (STOLEN!) iPads again! And, forcing those kids to learn in a world where they are bombarded with “entitlement not responsibility” and “you’re gonna be ‘young money’ like some rich rapper or NBA star” BS attitudes. They WANT social media and entertainment all day long in class, not to learn. You really couldn’t see that coming?! I’ll bet there is hacked movies and porn on those iPads they did get back too…. STUPID STUPID STUPID.”
Or this comment from “wtf2013lol” also posted on October 1, 2013:
“sold their iPads for meth and weed.”
“People have been stuck in the past, in the ‘90s when test scores were really low,” Carrasco said about the stereotypes of Roosevelt. “But we have been seeing a lot of improvement and our graduation rates have gone up. There’s a lot of really good things within the school that get overlooked.”
She says she’s proud to be from Boyle Heights and to have attended Roosevelt, and she found many of her peers felt the same way. They often cited teachers who had been influential in their lives and after-school activities they loved. The research around this project and the conversations about stereotypes and racism helped Carrasco feel more connected to her peers and proud of her identity.
“It teaches you about your community. And by learning about your community you learn about yourself, a self you never knew was there,” Carrasco said.
The student-researchers eventually presented their findings, based on dozens of interviews, in a bilingual presentation that included the larger community. They were interested to learn that many adults in the community echoed their feelings of alienation. Adults noted that movie studios use the streets of their neighborhood to film gang and drug scenes, enforcing negative images of their neighborhood.
“I saw a lot of leadership skills being developed, even in how they were talking about their community, going from a deficit mindset, really negative things, to focusing on the rich history and resistance,” McGovern said.
Students also had plenty of ideas about how the district could have brought more technology into classrooms without spending $1 billion on iPads and curriculum.
“Students felt like there were better ways to spend the money,” McGovern said.
Like fixing the broken technology already sitting in schools or making it possible for students to access the Internet with their phones. The participatory research project served to help students talk about the underlying feelings the iPad rollout elicited, and helped the student-researchers see themselves as academics with something to add to the discourse.
“When students do research they know what they’re looking for,” Carrasco said. “With people on the outside there are a lot of little things that get missed. If a student and a researcher did the same research, they’d get very different answers.”