The myth of the universal iPad utopia

My wife and I, both tech-savvy, blog-writing, Apple product fans, have nevertheless had a spirited debate about this Hibbing Daily Tribune story. The Hibbing School Board recently voted on a set of policies related to 700 new iPads purchased for 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders in this central Iron Range district.

Now, iPads in schools are nothing new; this is happening at all grade levels across the country. This story has a well-worn sense of routine to it. In this case, however, the understanding of the applicability of tablet computer usage seems lacking, and it’s an important lesson for everyone as we navigate the “new technology” of our times and how it relates to education.

So, 700 new iPads for the kids to take home and use throughout the school year. They will password protected and the district will be able to do “routine monitoring” of how the iPad is being used, with presumable consequences for inappropriate use. Parents will pay $40 per child, with a $100 family cap, toward a fund that pays for iPad replacement in the event of broken, lost or stolen iPads. Students will be able to do homework and practice key skills on the iPads.

These kinds of projects are often embarked upon as “equalizers.” If a family can’t afford an iPad, this is a way for those students to access the educational benefits. I have an iPad and there are a number of educational apps that our elementary aged children use, along with Angry Birds and the LEGO website.

But here are some questions the school board missed:

  • Have you ever seen the iPod of a middle schooler? How often is the screen cracked? In this case we’re talking about kids as young as 8. I’d argue that cracked screens and drops are bound to be so common that most iPads will see only one or two years usage. Heck, my first generation iPad is coming up on three years of age and it’s starting to become glitchy, along with using an operating system that Apple no longer supports. And we take pretty good care of it, with only a handful of light drops on record.
  • So kids have these iPads at home. Do their parents have internet? Do their parents have a wireless internet router? Any kind of work that requires internet usage will continue to be harder for poor families, multi-household families, rural families, and “first generation” education families. I teach online classes for Hibbing Community College (and these are my views, not my employer’s), but without even asking I can tell you which students come from a family that had fast internet and a wireless router in the home and which ones don’t. It’s reflected in their grades.
  • $40 a kid times 700 iPads allows for 10 percent replacement each year. Is that enough? 
  • Who is doing the routine maintenance and monitoring discussed in the story? You’re going to check the web histories and photo caches of 700 iPads? How often? How long before kids figure out that certain inappropriate usage is pretty easy to get away with? I figure about as long as it takes for adults to figure out that downloading NetFlix at work is pretty damn easy, too. 

I’m not saying that new technological tools, such as the iPad, are a bad thing. It’s a reality of human communication and work. But, too often, schools cater toward the families and students who already have access to these tools, with little help or preparation for the families that don’t. The result is a continuing divide between the haves and have-nots when these kids go to college.

This divide is becoming a big problem on the Iron Range, where being the son or daughter of the working poor keeps you out of hockey, extracurriculars and, increasingly, college. If you’re going to teach the use of a tool, you need to focus on proficiency of the basic skills involved. I worry that in cases like this, too much attention is being paid to the bells and whistles without the necessary context to explain the significance to students’ lives and future careers.


  1. I see universal internet access as a far larger issue than access to the current popular device. If kids lived in internet connected homes with WiFi, they’d find devices to access it.

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