There's no doubt Jesus Vargas is a tech savvy teen — he's built his own app.
He's a senior at USC Math, Science and Technology High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District — a school that doesn't have the iPads yet.
So he was excited to test drive one as he hung out at the after school program Urban Teens Exploring Technology near USC's campus. (KPCC borrowed a fully-loaded district iPad from an oversight committee member.)
"They are definitely trying to make it fun," Vargas said.
But when he flipped it on, he found the design of the main screen a little retro.
"It’s very similar to the interface of an iPod, which I have not used in a long time," Vargas said.
Vargas' first stop: the app store. The tablet blocked him from downloading any of them — the password to bypass is held by administrators only. Not even teachers can go in without permission. Rather than try to get around it, Vargas moved on to the preloaded software.
As part of its $30 million purchase from Apple, the tablets include educational software from London-based Pearson, a global giant in educational materials. The assignments are billed as being in line with new teaching standards called the Common Core, on which California students will be tested starting in the spring.
The tablets are loaded with readings, graphics and videos in a single app, offering several units for each grade level. The content for English spans K-12; math K-8. The district has said the software is still being developed and will be updated for these grade levels.
For the lower grades, the app is loaded with games. But for the higher grades, the units seem geared toward specific assignments.
During his short test drive on a recent afternoon, Vargas went for the highest level math available, eighth grade, and tried the first graphing problem. Graph paper appeared by a question. But he couldn't figure out what the question was asking of him.
"Oh, it has a video to show us how it's done," Vargas said.
The roughly two-minute video featured two girls sitting on a park bench drawing graphs on iPads. After watching, Vargas still couldn't figure out what the assignment was.
"See, it has this picture here," Vargas said, moving through the digital layers of the lesson. "I don’t know. Do you understand it? I don’t understand it."
So he looked for help. Ideally, students can ask questions online – perhaps from someone at Pearson, or to send a message to their teacher. But Vargas couldn't find anyway to connect with anyone on the device.
“If you have a room full of 30 kids," said Vargas,"and each have an iPad and each don’t understand this assignment, the iPad isn’t going to answer your question.”
Vargas also tried a high school English assignment. But it wasn't complete. It didn't have the short story the questions were asking about.
Little to customize
As he looked around, it was clear to him there was little he could customize on the tablet.
"I’m getting a little tired of this app already," he said.
As the district embarks on its ambitious program to provide a digital device for every student and every teacher, a big key to its success will depend on the software and applications that teachers and students will be able to use.
At a meeting of one of the Common Core Technology Project Committee last week, members and attendees grilled L.A. Unified administrators about the software's progress. The response: it could be years.
The cost of the software was also unclear — it was bundled by Apple — which also raised questions about what it would cost to renew the license with Pearson after three years, when it expires.
For its part, Pearson denies the software is incomplete. Susan Sclafani, Vice President for Programs at Pearson, said the iPad software has been under development for three years.
She said that its main benefit over books is that it can be constantly refined based on comments from teachers and researchers — and she said Pearson's doing just that.
"It is an ongoing changing, adapting environment in technology," Sclafani said. "Unlike a textbook, which you adopt for eight years, and you are stuck with it."
Sclafani said the Consortium of Policy Research in Education — which includes Columbia, Harvard, Penn and other major research universities — will study the software over the next five years, in part looking at how it works in L.A. Unified. Or how it doesn't.
Oscar Menjivar is a developer and former computer teacher. He leads the after school program Vargas attends. During a recent visit the room looked like a mini tech start-up: young people huddled in corners engrossed in their computers.
After playing with the Pearson software for a bit, Menjivar agreed with Vargas.
"I think Pearson didn’t put any thought into the software," said Menjivar.
He said it was shallow – barely scratching the surface of interactive capabilities.
Even the hit cell phone game Angry Birds is more responsive. A simple flick of the screen there, and the scene comes alive. And you can pull in friends to test your skills against theirs. Master a task, and Angry Birds guides you right into the next level.
The Pearson software seemed to him static by comparison.
"Basically you took your book and put it in a digital format," he said. "How does that change learning for the students?"