Monday, March 17, 2014

iPads for Everyone

At the School Board meeting held March 10, 2013, Superintendent Marschhausen introduced to the public a plan to begin equipping our students with tablet computers. Much of what he said was captured in a story in This Week Hilliard.

One of the most important statements he made was that this program would not result in any new taxes. That detail was noted in the This Week story, as well as in the story in The Columbus Dispatch. In his March 11 blog post, Dr. Marschhausen goes on to say, "We will pay for this initiative mostly through a reallocation of district and parent resources with only a small amount of additional dollars being spent on the entire program."

That's a big deal to me.

Readers of this blog know that I've written at length about the economics of our school district, and that our costs are driven primarily and appropriately by the compensation and benefits of our team of teachers, support staff and administrators. Indeed, compensation and benefits represents 86% of our operating budget. But did you know that after compensation and benefits, one of our greatest costs is textbooks and educational materials?

Textbooks are crazy expensive, especially for the upper grade levels. It's not unusual for textbooks to go for over $100 each, and for them to last only seven years. That replacement cycle is due in part to wear on the books, but also because of changes to curriculum and content. It's the reason virtually every school district in America is looking for an alternative to the printed-on-paper textbook.

The textbook industry is about to go through the same kind of radical evolutionary process as the music industry already has. I read an excellent story about the music industry a few years ago in which the author made the claim - accurately I believe - that the record companies had once maintained power in that ecosystem because they had built the scale necessary to manufacture, distribute and retail plastic discs: first vinyl records, then CDs.  Yes, the record labels did manage to lock up artists and exert creative influence, but the artists signed with the labels because that was the only way to get millions of records pressed and distributed. And that's how everyone made money (except the Grateful Dead, the ultimate touring band).

Then came the internet. It became possible for artists to record their music and distribute directly to consumers. Some did exactly that and made a few bucks. Then outfits like Napster showed up and nearly succeeded in making the going price for music essentially zero through their implicit support of music piracy (aka copyright infringement). The music industry had a period of chaos when it looked like no one was going to be able to make money.

Then along came Apple Computer, who changed everything when they released the iPod and iTunes. Concurrently, Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for copyright infringement and won (which I think was the correct outcome), and music piracy came pretty much to an end. A reasonable price point for music was found, and consumers went back to spending $billions, but the wealth was now being distributed differently than before. No one would have predicted 20 years ago that a computer company would be one of the biggest players in the music industry and that the traditional record labels would become almost invisible. But that's what happened.

No longer did the record labels rule the roost, but they managed to survive by finding a viable niche in the new music ecosystem: they could still help find, produce and promote emerging artists. I suspect that the music industry is bigger than it ever was, and more artists are making a decent buck.

Similarly, one could argue that the book publishing industry has maintained its power because of its investment in and control of the printing and distribution of bound collections of ink on paper. When Amazon came along, it first began to disrupt the distribution end of books on paper, and life became pretty tough for the brick-and-mortar retail bookstores. The next assault on the book publishing industry came when Amazon released the Kindle, and did to book publishing what the iPod did to music publishing.

Except in the case of  K-12 school textbooks.

While it seems like an obvious move to start buying all textbooks in Kindle format, it's not that easy. A basic Kindle may not cost any more than many textbooks (Kindles are $69 today), it seems like it would be shortsighted to get a basic e-reader when the potential is so much greater with a tablet device like the iPad or the Android devices.

As has been done before with big-deal decisions like this, a task force of community members, teachers and administrators was formed to make recommendations on this matter. With their input, the Administration decided that we'd start with the Apple iPad mini, to be first issued to next year's 6th graders. The 6th grade teachers will get their iPads this spring, along with professional development to help them integrate these devices into their instructional routine. Then during the summer they'll have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the devices and applications they'll use in the classroom.

Not everyone will agree with this decision. The choice of computing platforms has long been like a religious discussion, especially along the lines of PC vs Mac. Recently the Android operating system has become a viable third alternative, and Amazon is still in there as a player with the new models of the Kindle. I've long been a PC bigot, scorning the Mac world in the same way Fox News regards MSNBC (and vice versa).

Then one of my kids gave me her first generation iPod Touch as a hand-me-down when she got her first iPhone (with her own money, yeah!). I used it mostly as a PDA, storing my calendar and contacts, and giving me wireless email access (I've been a PDA user since the first Palm Pilots were introduced in 1997). But I still carried a cheap cell phone - because I'm cheap.

When we shifted to Consumer Cellular, I used the radical reduction in our cell phone bill to fund the cost of an iPhone 5C. Love it. Meanwhile my wife started using an iPad mini, and she rarely gets on our PC anymore. The camel had gotten its nose under the Lambert tent.

After getting zapped by one more virus, or registry corruption, or memory leak, or whatever it is that's making my office PC run like a slug, I finally made the leap to a Mac Mini for my primary office use. I still use Microsoft Office for my productivity software, but otherwise I've fully converted to the Dark Side. Sorry Bill.

The Apple folks have very aggressively attacked the K-12 education segment, and have developed sophisticated products and efficient management platforms. We've long had a few iMacs in elementary classrooms for shared use, and recently starting making shared carts of Macbooks available for checkout when a teacher wants to teach a module which makes use of online resources. For the number of buildings and computers we have in our school district, it takes a remarkably small number of administrators to keep everything update and functioning. That's partly due to the choice of a Mac environment, and partly because of the wise choices made by our Technology Department, long led by Gary Orr (who retired a couple of years ago), and now by Rich Boettner.

So continuing our evolution to the so-called 1:1 device environment (one device permanently assigned to each student) with Apple technology makes sense to me. Starting with the 6th grade students, using the iPad mini as their device, makes sense as well.

But my support is equally due to the commitment our Administration made to pull this off with no increase to our budget. It's easy to spend a ton of money on all kinds of stuff in a school district, and we already spend plenty. Without a doubt, the time would come when it would be a no-brainer to shift to a 1:1 device environment. We're on the leading edge of that curve, and will have to work hard and be smart to make our fiscal commitments come true.

I'm asking Dr. Marschhausen to develop a way to assure the School Board and the voters that the promise of "no new taxes" is honored. At a minimum, it should show up as a permanent downward inflection in our textbook spending. At a macro level, the spending side of our Five Year Forecast needs to remain on substantially the same trajectory as was last approved in October 2013.

Meanwhile, I'm proud to be associated with a school district who is among the first to take this step. Many are watching us.


  1. Paul,
    I share your pride in Hilliard being the first district to take this action. I think our leader had a hand in this action. Dr M shows the community what a real leader can do and with accountability. The action shows a connection to our motto Ready for Tommorrow.

    It is a shame the district does not have a better relationship with the City. It could lead to city wide wi-fi so the device could be used outside the district property. But then you have the boundry not being the same as the district. (dublin,hilliard,columbus) there is no way you will get all 3 to agree on a plan.
    Dr. M has decided to just do it. A man of action who will be accountable for the action.
    Having lunch with some parents who stated they are almost sorry to see their child graduate as we now have a leader.


    1. An advantage of having the students use the school district's wifi while on campus is that we can restrict access - e.g. no access to social media. Of course, the kids with their own devices and cellular data plans get easily get around this restriction.

  2. Hmm. No mention of the specific apps/software/books to be employed or their cost? So the plan is to buy a bunch of these and then figure out how to use them?

    Also just fyi, the ThisWeek article does mention the "no new taxes".

    1. Thanks for the correction - I've updated my article.

      My understanding is that the curriculum will be modified to make use of the iPads, and I'm sure that will continue to evolve.

    2. Here is some feedback from the workforce- we don't need kids to be taught how to play with iJunk. They are highly proficient there. In fact for many, it's a tendency that must be unlearned in the work environment.

      Ask them to create a spreadsheet in Excel or setup and Access database, though, and they barely know what you're talking about......

    3. I agree that these iPads aren't to be playthings, but we don't need to be teaching 6th graders how to make spreadsheets and relational databases. But there will be a time in their schooling when a spreadsheet or a database is the right tool to accomplish a learning project, and we should spend some time teaching them how to use those tools.

      When I was in high school and college, the personal computing device we all carried was a slide rule. Our chemistry teacher taught us how to use the slide rule, but there was no course on "slide ruling." Yet we quickly learned that it was a valuable tool for getting our chemistry and physics homework completed, and as time went on, we learned how to use all those different scales for trig and whatnot.

      In the same way, one role we'll have is to teach the kids how to use their iPad as a research and data analysis tool. But the more powerful use will be as a vehicle for delivering engaging, memorable, consistently high quality instruction in every subject.

    4. Paul, despite the emphasis you place on financial matters, I've never considered you to be "budget hawk", so I am not evaluating this through that lens. I regard you first and foremost as someone who understands the value and importance of educating our youth- and this is the common ground we have for a respectful divergence of opinion.

      In this case I have a couple problems, presented in order of importance
      1) There is no evidence buying these devices will have any impact on our learning outcomes. (esp when 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of the households in the district already have such a device or a PC).
      2) The savings on textbooks are unlikely to materialize.
      3) There weren't enough contrarians on the task force. And the opinions of the few that were on the task were marginalized by the "consensus".

      "But the more powerful use will be as a vehicle for delivering engaging, memorable, consistently high quality instruction in every subject."

      What does that make the teachers? Babysitters during iPad time? Where is the leadership?

      No disagreement from me that internet access is vital for learning, But a far more valuable skill right now is not how to research using an iPad, but having the self control to go 6 hours without playing with it.

      I am stunned that you think this is a good time for a district of our size to be embarking on this uncharted course...

      Who is brokering and/or financing this purchase?

    5. 1) you're right - but we won't know until we try. Maybe it's because I spent my entire adult life immersed in the online world (I blew some kids away the other day when I told them I've used email daily for 40 years), but I've seen more than a few cases when learning was radically enhanced when material is delivered via audiovisual media. I'm personally more of a visual learner, but a textual communicator (perhaps because I can't draw worth a hoot). Remember when the "Disney World of Color" had those "science" episodes? Those were very informative and inspiring to me - textbooks weren't.

      I'm not sure what comes next. I believe something like the Khan Academy is a transitional methodology, but that the next big landing point is something we don't see coming - any more than the music industry saw the iPod and iTunes exploding their industry.

      2) I'm concerned about that, and as I said, want us to find a way to ensure that this commitment is honored.

      3) The one session I went to seemed to have a decent cross-section of folks, but your observation is probably fair - the preponderance of them were likely to look favorably toward bringing more technology into our instruction process.

      My understanding is that we'll be dealing directly with Apple on the acquisition of these devices, just as we do for the iMacs and MacBooks we already have in the classrooms.

      I'm surprised that you're stunned. I would have been ready to start investing textbook dollars in Kindles a couple of years ago. I'm glad we didn't go that route - that would definitely have been premature. But the iPad mini wasn't an option then. And we don't know what technology will offer in 3 years.

      I once had a chance to hear futurist Alvin Toffler speak in a small group. I loved this line of his: "predicting 20 years into the future is easy - it's 3 years that's hard." There's no good reason to sit on our hands and spend piles of cash on paper books when we can take this leap in a fiscally responsible way.

      And that's what I'll be monitoring.

    6. I'm shocked that you're surprised that I'm stunned (sorry.. had to haha). But seriously, reread your second to last paragraph. It doesn't sound contradictory to you?

      I can accept rapid obsolescence, so long as the tool fulfills its purpose. I guess you could say the AS400 we run here is 'obsolete'. But it works and that's why we use it.

      But the burden of proof for such expenditures will always be on the district. Not the taxpayer. And this plan is so light on specifics that there really isn't anything to debate at this point. Yet here we are talking about moving forward with purchases.

      Also, from a strategy perspective, I'm surprised voter perception never came up in the task force. I can already hear it now..."What do we need this new levy for, apparently we have enough money to buy every kid in the district an iPad."

      Had to wiki Toffler... Interesting dude. I had never heard the concept of technological singularity but something I think a lot about. I have already come to terms with the fact that my feeble brain will never be able to comprehend, at the physical, atomic level, how or why transistor actually works in a processor. I have accepted the fact that I live in a world of machines I will never fully understand.

      But more to Toffler's point, I certainly think we've already reached singularity. I offer the commercials as evidence. What's more disturbing to me is that apparently we've deluded ourselves into thinking that instead of wasting time, we're doing something productive.

      I remember seeing a list of companies who actually make stuff people need, big famous companies, whose market cap didn't sum to that of Facebook's. Just too much money sloshing around in financial services being misallocated. We are just getting so far off the rails of reality it feels like sometimes, the delusion has actually worked its way into the economy where it can have real impacts on people's lives.

      I mean Goldman Sachs recruits physics pHds from MIT and has them write algorithms to skim the markets. Seriously? That's what we do with our best minds? Have them write gambling software? I can stomach the graft and corruption, but it this misallocation of our most precious resource that I cannot accept. it is a crime on humanity.

      You can always count of me to derail the conversation! Do I sound too old to be 32? hahaha

    7. I don't disagree with your characterization of Wall St. I got to spend a bit of time in that environment as an information services providers. Our customers were the investment bankers not the traders. The bankers were demanding enough, but the traders were nuts. Back in the 90s, they were demanding 50Mbps of bandwidth to their desktops so they could beat the competition on trade times.

      It's much the same today, except the "trader" is an algorithm, and it's not just bandwidth, but latency that they care about. Consequently, there's huge demand for server hosting space as physically close to the trading system portals as possible. By the way, this was largely precipitated by the changing the resolution of stock prices from 1/4 of a dollar to pennies, as the game today is to make pennies a share on shares that might be held for only seconds.

      The Administration has committed to making this happen without the need to increase the budget, primarily by funding from the textbook budget. Now we have to hold them to it.