School-issued iPads may be cordless, but there are strings attached

06/10/2014 3:59 PM

06/10/2014 4:00 PM

They say not to look a gift horse in the mouth. If someone gives you a horse, accept it whether or not it needs a root canal. It might not even have teeth and be in desperate need of dentures. But a horse is a valuable gift, and it would be perfectly rude to start scrutinizing whether it meets your standards.

Right?

The thing is, though, once you ride that horse home and put it in your barn, you’re going to have to deal with its oral hygiene.

Nobody gave me a horse. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had one, either. The gift horse I’m trying not to rudely scrutinize is a gift to my children from the Shawnee Mission School District. This fall, each of them will be issued their very own iPad to use for the year. I just can’t help myself — call me boorish — but I’m pulling back the lips and gawking at the teeth. And I’m not entirely liking what I’m seeing.

A computer for every student is a pretty awesome provision, right? It’s a powerful piece of technology that opens doors to all kinds of amazing learning opportunities. Switching to electronic homework can save forests’ worth of paper and hours of copying and grading time for teachers. Educational programs provide instant answers and additional learning resources to students, pinpointing their particular needs.

In short, educational technology rocks. At least, in some ways.

But still, it worries me for several reasons.

For one thing, my husband and I have militantly enforced a “no screens during the week” rule for our children. It’s not that we’re particularly hard-nosed about much of anything, but we’ve noticed that screen time affects our kids’ attitudes. Screen time turns them into zombies — angry zombies who turn on us and try to eat our brains when we tear the screens away from them. It’s a toxin to our family, and we have found our lives to be much calmer when enforcing this rule. And now? The only way we can enforce the rule will be to mandate they not do their homework.

I’m also keenly aware that going through the motions of writing something and being able to remember whatever I wrote go hand in hand. I can be moderately forgetful. For instance, I will forget my grocery list — either on the kitchen counter or on the seat of my car — roughly 90 percent of the time. However, taking a couple of minutes to scrawl a list, even in yellow highlighter on a yellow piece of paper, dramatically increases my ability to remember why I’m going to the store. Likewise, when working on a project, I write my notes in a notebook. I create column after column, drawing arrows and stars, scrawling key ideas in an unintelligible jumble. But being able to decipher the notes is not the key. When I write them, I commit them to memory. I organize them in my brain.

On top of watching our no-screen rule get flushed down the toilet, and worrying that the kids will be missing out on a key ingredient of learning — writing — the physical challenge of it all is a major concern. My son has broken not one but two tablet computers in the last month. The baffling thing about it is that he’s very careful with his belongings, particularly his precious electronics. He stores them in their cases, wraps their cords neatly and keeps their screens clean. Yet, two screens have broken. (Adults can do this, too. Ask my friend who dropped her phone in a toilet and, a week later, dropped her brand-new phone into a margarita.)

Yes, there’s insurance. For $50 (billed to the parents), the iPads will be insured against whatever kickball, leg hike of a beagle, or overnight on a playground in the rain comes their way. But the parents are required to pay the insurance — and if they don’t, they are responsible for the full value of the iPad.

Of course I’ll buy the insurance. Many parents will. But it’s the parents who can’t cough up the extra $50/kid, those already struggling financially, who won’t be able to afford them. And Murphy will tell you, those are the kids whose iPads will be struck by lightning.

As my friend who works in the troubled Kansas City School District reminded me, we’re lucky to be in a great school district with resources to enrich the lives of the children. Yet I’m concerned, and I do hope that the kids grow up equipped with the skills they need to succeed. Just in case they want to become horse dentists.

Overland Park mom and 913 freelancer Emily Parnell writes for Diversions each week.

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