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When Kindergarteners are Issued iPad 2s, has iPad Hype Jumped the Shark?

Is it dumb to give iPad 2s to 5 year olds? I thought so, at first, but then I weighed all of the evidence.

As the masochist who has taken it upon himself to document all of the businesses and schools that are rolling out iPads, I'm obviously a big believer in Steve Jobs' PC-killer. But doubts do occasionally rise up.

Case in point: a small public school district in central Maine just announced plans to give away iPad 2s to all 300 of its kindergarten students.

The school district plans to spend $200,000 for the iPads, which students will use as an in-classroom teaching aid and will be able to take home with them.

“What it's about is young people having in their hands a tool that will customize and accelerate their learning,” Auburn's superintendent told the local newspaper.

As someone who evangelizes mobility full-time for an enterprise mobility software vendor in the most high-tech region in the world but was still issued a 4-year-old greige Dell laptop by my company, suffice to say that I am totally jealous of these kids.

Besides my envy, I also wondered: how useful will tablets really be? Has iPad hype become so overwhelming that we've jumped the shark into the territory of badly-planned, wasteful deployments?

Auburn is a small town that as far as I can tell from the story, has neither been an aggressive user of technology. With a median family income of $44,000, it is also not one of those upper-middle-class enclaves where the parents and kids are all wired.

Call me cautious, but my philosophy usually is: it's better to walk before you try to run.

Moreover, Auburn is hoping to win $200,000 in grants to pay for the iPads. If it doesn't win them, it will take that money out of its budget, which only totals $36 million a year.

I don't know the specifics of Auburn's budget situation, but I've certainly read many stories about how cash-strapped districts around the country are these days.

The potential zero-sum implications worry me. If Auburn doesn't get the grants it's hoping for, will it be forced to cover its iPad 2 investment by laying off 4 teachers?

My biggest lingering doubt waswhether iPads will simply be wasted on kids who can barely read or type (but are really really good at breaking things).

Will the results be as absurd, to quote a popular book for kids this age, as giving a pig a pancake?

But then I started thinking about my own boys, aged 7 and 5, in first grade and kindergarten, respectively.

For them, the iPad's apps, including non-specifically educational ones, have proven to be a super learning tool.

They build their vocabulary every time they play Hangman, Fish School, Super Why or a plethora of other PBS Kids games.

They draw and doodle using Brushes.

They improve their visualization and strategic skills playing Dots and Tic-Tac-Toe.

They learn the value of money whenever they pay me out of their personal money stash to buy $0.99 updates at the App store.

They read and write e-mails by exchanging them with my dad, their grandpa. And become pretty good hunt-and-peck typists, to boot.

They've learned a surprising amount about weather from checking the forecasts on my apps, about different fruits and veggies by farming their Smurfs, as well as the basics of geometry and physics through Glass Tower and Angry Birds.

Which is more productive: doling out iPads to kindergarteners or offering baked goods to antlered mammals? The former, overwhelmingly.

Auburn is also not foolishly pursuing their vision alone. Here's a sampling of schools from my iPad deployment list that are also giving iPads to kindergarteners:

- Bialik College in Victoria, Australia;

- Cedars School of Excellence in Scotland;

- Marymount School in New York City;

- St. Andrew's School in Savannah, Georgia;

- Unity Point School in Carbondale, Illinois;

- Universal School in Tardeo, India;

- Virginia Beach district in Virginia;

Educators and researchers have by no means reached a consensus yet. But an increasing number recognize the role that iPads and other tablets can play in the classroom and outside-of-school learning.

That's good enough for me. Because with unstoppable technology trends, I'd rather be riding the wave rather than being swamped by it. Now, if only my CIO felt the same way...


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