Students Are 'Hacking' Their School-Issued iPads: Good for Them

The limitations imposed on these devices inhibit students' natural curiosity.

Almost immediately after receiving their new school-issued iPads this fall, students in Indiana and in California (and probably elsewhere) managed to bypass the security on the devices, “hacking” them for “non-schoolwork” purposes: listening to music, checking Facebook, surfing the web.

The news made headlines last week, no surprise, considering the hundreds of millions of dollars that schools all over the country are spending on tabletswith the promise that ed-tech has made for decades now of better student achievement with more modern, more mobile teaching and learning opportunities. The Los Angeles School District alone, where some of this purported “hacking” occurred, has plans to spend $1 billion for an iPad rollout over the next two years that would eventually put a device in every student’s hands. But in light of the security breaches and other concerns about the project’s implementation, the district is rethinking the initiative. It recently announced that students will not be allowed to take their iPads homeone of the key perks of the sort of “24–7 learning” that mobile devices are supposed to support.

With concern about cybercrime running high—especially after a summer of stories about Edward Snowden and the NSAthe news about the students and their iPads probably also made headlines because their actions were described as “hacking.” But is this a fair term for what the students did? At one LA high school, students simply discovered they need only delete the personal profile that the district IT department had created and they could gain full, unfettered access to their tablets. At another school, students found a way to stop their iPads from connecting to the school network that restricts the content they can download. Sure, these are “hacks” if you’re using the word to talk about a “quick and dirty technical workaround.” But in common parlance, “hacking” implies a break-in, a security violation, a national threat. It even carries a whiff of criminal intent. These are altogether the wrong implications.

More akin perhaps to a “jailbreak” of their devices (although that term typically means the removal of Apple-installed limitations on the devices) the students wanted their iPads to work the way they expected them to. They wantedand found—a way to gain access to what they think of as the normal web, including the sites and application that districts often block: social networks, games, and music-streaming services.

CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, does require schools and libraries that receive federal E-rate funds to monitor minors’ Internet usage and to filter sites that are obscene, pornographic, and/or harmful to minors. But neither Facebook nor Pandora nor YouTubeall frequently blocked on school campuses across the countryfall into those categories, and it’s not clear whether CIPA extends to students’ usage of school-issued devices at home. Students, for their part, frequently cite the over-filtering of their school networks as one of the major impediments to their using technology to learn.  

Even though much of their unfettered iPad usage in these recently publicized “hacking” cases involved, as The LA Times put it “non-schoolwork” and as NPR dismissed it “entertainment,” it’s important to recognize how students do learn with technology. It isn’t simply a matter of a digital version of analog lessons and readingssomething implicitly presumed by the Los Angeles’s school system's plan to “limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed." Students listen to music and chat with friends while they study. Their iPad “hack”their work-arounddemonstrates their desire, not to mention their ability, to do just that. 

It should prompt us to ask why we want students to have accessor notto computers. Whose goals do computers meet? Apple’s? Pearson’s? The Department of Education’s? Or students’?

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Audrey Watters is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in education technology.

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