By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Los Angeles school district is putting the brakes on a project to give an iPad to each student, a $1 billion initiative that is the largest rollout of its kind in the nation and has been plagued by students hacking the devices' security features.
District officials have already provided their devices to over 25,000 students, and under their original plan would have finished distributing tablets to the last of its 650,000 students in late 2014.
Superintendent John Deasy has described the rollout as a civil rights initiative designed to give students in his district, mostly from low-income families, access to a 21st century tool common in middle-class households. Students are supposed to use it to take standardized tests, do homework, read curriculum, play learning games, capture video and more.
But they also want to use the devices for fun. In a high-profile setback, some 300 teenagers from three high schools found a way to bypass security protocols on their iPads earlier this year to access Twitter and other sites the district seeks to block.
Students have since been barred from taking the iPads home. Following that and other concerns from school board members, Deasy has proposed delaying by a year, to late 2015, the completion of the iPad rollout.
One board member, Monica Ratliff, has questioned whether a laptop and not an iPad was a better tool for high school students, and has sought a school board vote in mid-2014 on whether to go forward with the plan. The board, at a meeting on Tuesday, is set to consider the idea of a mid-year vote.
The Los Angeles rollout would be the largest distribution of mobile computers to schoolchildren attempted in the United States, and its efforts have gained widespread attention as districts across the nation experiment with ways to equip students with such devices.
"It is certainly ambitious and I have to credit them for that," said Richard Culatta, the U.S. Department of Education's director of the office of educational technology, adding that any such program was bound to experience "bumps along the road."
Los Angeles schools are not alone in choosing the iPad or mobile computing devices.
In a 2012 survey of over 364,000 U.S. students by Project Tomorrow, more than 28 percent of pupils in grades 3 to 12 said they had access to a school-provided laptop. Some 18 percent of third through fifth graders said they were given a tablet, with lower rates for older students.
Some school districts, such as in Virginia and Nevada, encourage students to bring their own devices to school for educational use, Culatta said.
The Los Angeles district, the second largest in the nation after New York, has struggled in recent years with declining enrollment and test scores that lag the California average.
Officials have said one reason for spending $1 billion on iPads, including $366 million to upgrade Wi-Fi networks and other technical infrastructure at schools, is to give students technology they can use to learn at their own pace.
In higher grades, they can use iPads with click-in keyboards to write and research essays.
At home, students will be able to access most of the Web including Wikipedia and news sites, but not social networking sites where cyber bullying is a concern, schools officials said.
Student Jayla Hill, 10, told the school board this month that the tablet lets students who may have missed a concept, like math division, to review on their own.
"I feel like the iPad helps me because sometimes the teacher pressures you to get the answer, but the iPad sits there and gives you all the time in the world," she said.
Officials have sought to reassure parents concerned about being held liable for the tablets by pledging to replace for free those that are lost or stolen.
"We're doing kind of a groundbreaking rollout, we all knew there would be attention paid to it and that's not a bad thing," Los Angeles school board member Tamar Galatzan said last month.
"If folks want to go back to the day of using a piece of stone and a chisel, we can," Galatzan said.
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Nick Zieminski)