“I haven’t seen anything like this in the 10 years I’ve been doing this work,” said Leslie Wilson of the Michigan-based One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that provides technology guidance to schools and districts nationwide. “Did they have a desired goal beyond the ever-present, ‘We want our kids to be 21st-century learners?’ Why do we want every child to have an iPad? Because it will do what?”

Many school districts now want to get their rollouts right from the start and are calling to ask, “How do we prevent going down the same path as these major debacles out there?” Wilson said.

In Los Angeles, the district and school board disagreed over whether or not students had been allowed to take the devices home and who was responsible if they were lost or stolen. And some teachers still question the purpose of high-priced tablets.

Just 36 percent of 255 teachers polled strongly favored continuing the iPad initiative, and the majority said they did not have enough training, according to results of a recent anonymous survey by a Los Angeles board of education member and employee unions. Survey participants teach in the 47 schools that have received iPads so far.

Other school districts also are learning from bad experiences. The Fort Bend school district in Texas put the brakes on its $16 million iPad program in October after a review showed the program had “unrealistic goals” and did not meet state standards.

The Guilford County school district in North Carolina is delaying a tablet program paid for with a $30 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education. They had to return some 15,000 Amplify tablets this fall after many of the chargers overheated, among other problems.

Hard lessons

Some school districts might take a page from Houston, where teachers received iPads so they could learn how to use them before students get devices in their hands. Los Angeles is considering this strategy for the second phase of its rollout.

That idea makes sense to Scott Himelstein, interim director of the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center, which studies how mobile devices in classrooms affect teaching and learning.

“That’s smart, because you really need time to plan for this and get staff used to the technology,” Himelstein said.

Advocates for using iPads as teaching tools are quick to point out they are only effective if teachers are well trained. Otherwise, they might simply be used as replacements for textbooks and worksheets.

“We have decades of historical evidence demonstrating that what people do with technology is to extend existing practices at great cost, with very little learning gained,” said Justin Reich, co-founder of EdTechTeacher, which trains teachers in how to use technology in the classroom.

In Miami, assistant superintendent Sylvia Diaz says her district decided to follow San Diego’s example, where it took six years to get a device into the hands of each student.

“We’re going to take baby steps and get this right,” said Diaz.

Miami-Dade has a few small mobile technology programs up and running in the district already. The most recent plan is to hand out devices to seventh- and ninth-graders for use in social studies classes. If the program is a success, it will be expanded to other grades and subjects.

For any new program to work, teachers need professional development and technical support, she said. The district recently announced that it will equip all classrooms with a digital science curriculum and provide training for teachers on how to use it.

Above all, Diaz stresses the importance of making sure the instructional purpose of using iPads is clear—an issue that has gotten lost amid Los Angeles’ troubles.

“It’s really about asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Diaz said.

(Next page: What the research says about iPads in schools)