The XX Factor

Looking the School’s Gift iPad in the Mouth

Is the iPad the future of the textbook? Even at $750 each, and with relatively little traditional textbook content, the NYT reports today that some schools are already embracing the device , stocking a rather inaptly named “iMaginarium” with 20 of them for use by kindergartners and up, adding them to libraries or even issuing them to students with the intent of that they be “used in class and at home during the school year to replace textbooks, allow students to correspond with teachers and turn in papers and homework assignments, and preserve a record of student work in digital portfolios.”

It’s foolish to deny that the tablet computer, in one form or another, will replace traditional textbooks in schools, and probably sooner than later. At $750 per, iPads don’t seem to make economic sense, but that cost is bound to decrease dramatically, and soon, particularly for those who buy in bulk. Exact per-child per-year textbook budgets are hard to come by, but they start at $12 per student and go up fast: Families in districts that require parents to rent textbooks report annual costs in the $350 range , and those are for unchangeable, set materials. The economics of ebooks will be different: One device will hold them all, leaving fees for content. Revisions won’t be budget-breakers. And there are other advantages to school districts, like the ability to tailor content to their local needs. Texas teachers need never even consider covering the separation between church and state again.

Despite the obvious problems with this,  the advent of the tablet textbook is inevitable. But the slotting of the existing iPad into that space is disturbing, not because of what it doesn’t do-I may have learned to take notes or highlight a physical book, and take math tests on paper, but I see no reason that doing those things differently couldn’t be just as effective-but because of what else it does. When a school takes on handing a child an iPad, even with, one presumes, every possible parental control enabled, they’ve also handed that child a whole lot more.  What if a kid bullies another kid via text from a school-issued iPad, circumvents those control systems to access what would become NSFS (not safe for school) sites, or just happens to be a kid who can’t handle having Angry Birds available in the same place as his algebra homework? Those are things schools shouldn’t wait to consider after the fact.

I love technology. My iPad was waiting on the doorstep the day they were released. But not everyone wants to raise tech kids. For now, my fourth-grader can’t conjure up a YouTube video he’s seen before without help with the browser, and that’s the way I want it. If his school gave him an iPad, it would change his expectations, his peers’ expectations, and his relationship with the computers and technology that’s already around the house in ways I don’t feel ready for. And as happy as I’d be about books he can’t forget at school, fewer crumpled papers in the bottom of the backpack and a lighter load in the same, I wouldn’t be happy about that.