All that glitters is brand-namedApple iPads in the classroom
Lately, the Rockland schools seem to be obsessed with all things technological.
The most recent example happened to me yesterday, when my cellphone rang. A placid, pre-recorded female voice informed me in a slightly garbled way that "dude protection" would be available at Rockland District Middle School starting Oct. 15.
It was the kind of voice I normally associate with the end of "Alien" when the computer is telling Sigourney Weaver she has three minutes to reach "minimum safe distance."
I almost hung up on the voice, dismissing it as some sort of telemarketing robot, before realizing it was talking about my son's school.
Not knowing what "Dude protection" was, I called the school office. It turns out it was "tooth protection," and it's for eligible kids. The person in the office has gotten to know me in recent weeks since I'm a question asker, and she was helpful as always. However, the automated voice on my cellphone is a good example of a growing concern.
I like the idea of a school as a community center, a place where we come together to watch the neighbor's kids sing in the winter concert with our kids. However, with cost-cutting driving consolidation and changes in technology changing the way children learn, schools are becoming more impersonal.
The big technological change this year was the coming of the Apple iPad. Back on Sept. 11, the school held an assembly and a large number of parents attended. This was the unveiling of the new tablet devices that are going to all students in grades 5 through 7 (1,183 in all, costing $172,709 per year). For those who don't know, an iPad is an Apple product that is like either a giant phone or compact laptop depending on how you choose to look at it.
At this meeting, an Apple expert all the way from Seattle came to walk the parents through logging their kids into these devices.
This was challenging for Christine and me. We use computers every day, but don't have the new tablet style machines. The virtual keyboard has to be touched just right to render a letter in a password and when you want caps, you have to push a button other than the traditional shift that also, conveniently, isn't a real button. We aren't technophobes, but it was kind of a pain trying to keep up with everyone else in the room as the computer guy walked us through it.
As usual, Christine did most of the work, while I offered helpful comments like, "I think you're doing that wrong!" This was like the opposite of marital counseling.
Part of me was thinking this was a great program... for Apple.
It does seem like brand name corporate products are being marketed more actively in schools now than when I was a child. For example, the recent book fair at the school, I noticed, featured not only books, but toys and most were tied in with major motion pictures or TV shows. The whole thing seemed like an advertising campaign, and many of the books seemed to have little educational value.
However, despite my typical reporter doubts, I was pretty open-minded about the iPads at first. I figure, the children will graduate into a world of technology that we can't even imagine.
We were positioned fairly well to help Wesley get the most out of this device. We have Wi-Fi at the house. His grandparents bought him a detachable keyboard for the device so it could function more like a laptop.
Watching him write his first paper on the iPad, I thought this seemed more like a machine designed to display information than one for writing. I also was concerned about the fact that children today are not learning to type properly because they are on keyboards long before they get to high school typing. Of all the things I learned in school, the ability to type is in the top three most useful next to reading and not ticking off the biggest guy in the room. (Someone will say, "We have child keyboarding class," but the result is not children who touch-type. Like elementary French, this is flirting with a skill rather than acquiring it).
It also seems the school has spent a lot of time trying to adjust to this change so far this year.
When I was a kid, we had computers in school. I can remember learning proper care for floppy disks and writing assignments on TRS-80's.
We had a computer lab.
The difference was that while we were exposed to new technology, my school, the Hampden, Maine school system, did not throw out any of the old as it ushered in the new. I was still taught cursive, the old way of doing multiplication and how to play the scales on a trumpet.
We have to be careful about putting too much stock in these devices because by the time my son graduates from college, there will be something new to replace them. I mean, when was the last time you handled a floppy disk? The basics of education must remain timeless, something that isn't obsolete when you pull it out of the box.
There are improvements that have come with new technology. I like being able to track my child's progress online and emailing his teachers with questions.
I question whether the teachers were given enough training on these specific devices to get the most out of them before they were in every child's hands. I also feel the parents deserve more of a say in these matters.
The first question with any new technology in the classroom should be: is this a tool or a distraction?
Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.