The End of the World As We Know It (Or Why I don’t think Wellesley 5th Graders Need Their Own iPads)

Elizabeth Butcher, a writer and Wellesley parent, submitted the following opinion piece on the town’s plan to adopt iPads across the 5th grade in the fall.

There is a proposal under consideration to require every 5th grader in the Wellesley Public Schools to purchase an iPad as part of the 5th to 8th grade curriculum beginning this coming September.  The child would be expected to use the iPad for learning inside and outside the classroom for the next four years.  The device would be paid for by the student’s family at a cost of $155/year for a new iPad purchased through WPS, or $40/year to have an existing iPad owned by the family wiped clean and reconfigured to WPS standards.  Financial aid would be available for families demonstrating need.

One may ask why, in a town with good standardized scores, strong college placement and excellent teachers, this program is being proposed as a requirement in the fifth grade.  According to the WPS website dedicated to the 1:1 Technology Pilot Program, proponents believe that it:

  • Creates a culture where technology is used productively, responsibly, ethically, and appropriately.
  • Increases access to technology, facilitates formative assessment, supports general instruction, and enables new modes of differentiation, without stigma.
  • Prepares students to be innovators by shifting their perception of technology from toy to tool.
  • Promotes equity by addressing the “digital gap” between students without technology access at home and their peers.
  • Invests in our human capital by providing faculty with new tools and professional development to grow and develop their instructional capacity.

Of course some might argue that giving a ten-year-old full time access to an iPad is not an “appropriate” use of technology. I am not worried about porn or video games or naughty YouTube videos although that will probably happen. My concern is that our children will become mindless drones lacking in reason and human empathy.

I worry that the mental exercise of having to ponder the answer to a question or sound out a big word will be sacrificed for the sake of a quick answer.  I am concerned that if our town embraces this technology our children will be able to access definitions, pronunciations, solutions, and opinions before they have developed the skills or attention span to reason independently.

In a global economy where creativity remains one of the few sustainable advantages, our children should be learning to be collaborative learners, strong writers, attentive listeners and thoughtful problem solvers – qualities that are developed by engaging with teachers and peers, not by interfacing with a screen.

Unquestionably there is a place for technology in the upper grades of elementary school and Wellesley already does an excellent job of incorporating it appropriately in the classroom.

So, what problem or shortcomings are we are trying to fix with this 1:1 Initiative?

If we want to eliminate a digital “gap” between students, wouldn’t it be more cost effective to provide laptops or home computers to students in need?  Then, parents could decide when and what access to technology was merited at home.  And, if we are concerned about different types of learners, and research suggests iPads are a helpful tool in removing stigma, I support funding iPads for each classroom.

I would like to understand why this program should be implemented in the fifth grade, the last year of elementary school, when it has not (to my knowledge) been attempted in the high school or even the middle school.  Why not see how eighth graders do with this technology and the responsibility of owning a $500 device before mandating it for ten-year-olds?

From the populist perspective, one might ask, does a public school system have the right to require families to purchase a piece of technology for students that is part of a mandatory curriculum? The State of California does not think so.  This is not an add-on like an athletic or bussing fee.  I remember when the Spanish language program was eliminated in the Wellesley elementary schools; at that time families were not allowed to pay to have that program continue. What makes this initiative different?

Finally, in a world where so many societal and geopolitical ills are being linked to a breakdown of community and lack of human communication, do we really want to be a town that is driving our children away from collaborative learning and onto individualized screens in elementary school?

I hope not.

To learn more about the 1:1 Initiative in Wellesley please attend the forum on January 10th (today!) at 7pm in the Wakelin Room at the Wellesley Free Library.

UPDATE: Further thoughts from Elizabeth Butcher after attending the parents’ meeting.

RELATED: Wellesley planning $1M technology overhaul, iPads for all 5th graders

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