Apple a Day: iPad Could Become Required Daily Part Of School Curriculum

Most 10-year-olds would only dream of having their own iPad. For children in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a well-to-do suburb of Boston, that dream might be coming true — with a catch. They children would have to use the iPads in school.

The Wellesley School District has proposed a program requiring every fifth grader to have an iPad for use in the classroom (and at home). Despite an extensive FAQ for the proposal, a video, and a successful year-long pilot program, the iPad program has inspired skepticism and open opposition for the past week among the Wellesley community and all over the internet.

The source of that general skepticism has been elusive — it somehow seems to upset our general sense of the way things should be — whatever that means. Some counter-arguments hold water and some do not, but a healthy dose of caution is exactly what it will take to make such an ambitious proposal worth it; a threshold made much higher by the iPad’s price tag and the relatively young age of the students.

The district gives many reasons for requiring this expensive and coveted piece of technology. Their year-long pilot of the 1:1 iPad program reported success on many fronts. Teachers report that the students come to view the technology as more of a tool than a toy, a key insight in a world already packed with gizmos. Students in the pilot fared better than usual on their standardized math tests, as well.

The 1:1 iPad scheme also supports more practice and rapid feedback for students, as well as more individualized learning without the usual associated stigma. Frequent feedback has been shown to improve student learning, and the digital interface makes that much more feasible.

Rapid feedback is useful, but interpersonal interaction is also vital, especially in these formative years; many parents and onlookers have worried that the use of iPads will detract from classroom interaction. The proposal counters that the devices are often used in collaborative projects, but it is easy to be skeptical. It will take very wise management on the part of the teachers to ensure that interpersonal learning does not suffer.

But why the iPad in particular? The district says it is currently the best option based mostly on cost, battery life, and instant-on capability. The iPad certainly does lead in battery life for tablets — it currently has the best in the market. I also suspect that app availability limits educators’ options significantly; there are many more available for the iOS operating system than on others. For example, Lexia, a popular program for teaching reading skills, only has a mobile app for the iOS interface.

There is no doubt that cost still remains a major sticking point. Families can either use an existing device — and pay an additional $40 to have it wiped and filled with a standard suite of apps and a management system — or “lease-to-own,” at a cost of $155 per year, gaining full ownership after four years. Either option represents a significant investment, especially given the likelihood that the iPad could be lost or broken. The district says it is committed to providing financial aid to any family with demonstrated need.

That said, 10-year-olds are still learning how to be responsible, and although the proposed program includes education on responsible use and care of the tablets, there are likely to be some very expensive accidents. For this reason, the program seems more suitable to an older age group. The students are expected to take home the iPads in order to continue their education or do their homework, adding to the likelihood that something unexpected could happen and also ruffling some parental feathers.

In response to the suggestion that the program encourages appropriate use of technology, one Wellesley parent noted, “some might argue that giving a 10-year-old full time access to an iPad is not an 'appropriate' use of technology.” While parents can opt to require their children to leave the iPad at school, the tone of the proposal suggests that educators would rather they not.

Children are exposed to an increasing amount of screen time, and parents interested in limiting it to a reasonable amount see this initiative as a significant challenge. Science on the impact of screen time is still young, but so far results urge caution, and perhaps suggest that heavy use of technologies such as the iPad should be staved off for a few years past the fifth grade.

Teachers and parents will have to figure out how to best integrate technology into the educational lives of their children, both in the classroom and out. Technology is not going anywhere and will likely continue to penetrate the classroom in new ways; we should welcome it, but only with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially for such young students.