This fall, students at some schools in northeast Indiana were handed iPads as part a new of initiative designed to put a personal computing device in the hands of every student.
East Allen County Schools, Huntington County Community Schools and Concordia Lutheran High School are among the districts that spent millions of dollars to put the shiny digital tablets in the hands of thousands of students to use inside the classroom and, in some cases, at their homes.
Educators and administrators praise the initiative, called 1:1 computing, citing its potential to improve learning opportunities.
But some parents have expressed apprehension and outrage as their young students bring technology to their homes in ways that families may have been ill-prepared or present dangers they find difficult to control.
In Huntington County, the district introduced iPads this fall as part of its 21st Century Learning Initiative and has proposed using the iPads as the primary learning device.
About 2,000 iPads were handed out in August, and parents were offered an in-school tutorial. A digital presentation remains on the district’s website to show parents how to set up parental restrictions.
But since the 1:1 plan was announced by the district last spring, one of the most vocal critics has been parent Brian Wohlgemuth.
Tech-savvy as a network engineer for a major telecommunications firm, Wohlgemuth has asked many times about the devices at school board meetings and blogged about his concerns during the rollout.
“There’s a way to get kids to be digital citizens,” he wrote on his blog in May. “This isn’t the way to do it.”
In another blog post from early September, Wohlgemuth further addressed his growing concern.
“The kids are using iPads either as glorified notebooks or digital cameras and constantly uploading to Facebook. I’m guessing that a significant majority of traffic on the (school’s) network is probably social media related,” he wrote. “But what does this mean for the schools? Well, we still have $2 million in iPads that have to be used over the next four years.”
In a telephone interview, Wohlgemuth said the district has totally dismissed his concerns.
The parent of a high school student, Wohlgemuth said he has heard the high school has nearly open access to the Internet on school grounds, even though social networking sites are blocked.
“(The students are) getting around every firewall (the school) puts up,” he said. “The biggest problem I have is that not only are they getting unfettered access, the school, when told about it, says ‘Oh, they can’t do that.’ They blame the teachers for not creating better ‘digital citizens.’ ”
Huntington Schools Superintendent Tracey Shafer said that some of the concerns raised about the iPads have been invalid, but the ones the district believes are founded have been dealt with. Some of the problems with technology in the system have been because of other improvements – such as an upgrade to Microsoft’s Windows 7 throughout the district – which did not include the iPads. Some of the software the district used for a long time did not interact well with the new operating system.
Network firewalls are in place at the high school, Shafer said, and all incoming and outgoing data is filtered through that.
But other districts have been confronted with safety challenges related to the use of iPads.
At Highland Middle School in Anderson, a teacher reportedly uploaded revealing photos from her iPad. Four students were suspended for viewing it, according to a report in the Anderson Herald Bulletin.
And the access to content ill-suited for children is not the only problem.
An East Allen County Schools student was recently robbed of his school-issued iPad.
Know your child
Concordia Lutheran High School required all of its roughly 700 students to have iPads beginning this year. Principal Mychal Thom said the exposure to technology has provided a wider range of learning opportunities for students.
Students have immediate access to information, and teachers can use applications or other programs to supplement what students learn from a textbook. Students have also used social networking sites to discuss lectures during or outside of class and to promote the student newspaper or student-run sales and fundraisers.
East Allen County Schools also instituted a 1:1 initiative that gave all students in grades 6-12 an iPad they could take home. Students in grades K-5 have iPads available for use in the classroom but do not take the devices home, said Bill Diehl, EACS director of accountability
But both Diehl and Joshua Sommermeyer, assistant principal for curriculum and technology at Concordia, said any device, whether it’s a personal cellphone or a school-provided iPad, comes with distractions.
Sommermeyer and other educators said students using the devices will be in a better position to manage distractions when using technology later on in life.
To help some schools cut down on distractions, Apple, the company that makes the iPad, has updated its filtering options that allows schools to “lock (iPads) down and make them more secure,” Diehl said.
East Allen, like other districts, prohibits access to social networks like Facebook on its devices, and with the update from Apple the district has “really been able to clamp that down,” he said.
Some of the districts provide filters and restrict applications students can download by using age-requirement filters on the devices. Any application available in Apple’s iTunes store has a minimum age requirement.
Other districts, such as Huntington, use a different Internet browser from the iPad’s standard Safari browser that gives parents greater control over where their middle school students go on the Web.
But educators are quick to point out that students would have access on their own by way of any electronic devices provided by parents, such as smartphones.
Sommermeyer estimated that about 80 percent of students at Concordia have cellphones, half of which are smartphones. He said many parents didn’t even realize some cellphones have the same capabilities as the district-provided tablets.
“You have to be the parent and know what your child is getting into,” Diehl said.
Both Thom and Sommermeyer said they’ve taken the opportunity to teach students lessons when they’ve acted inappropriately online or with their devices. Discipline hasn’t gotten to the point of expulsion, but Thom said many students have been warned about their behavior with the devices. Thom said students, and people in general, don’t understand the public nature and permanence of the Internet.
“We’ve got 691 teenagers. We’ve got issues, but I don’t believe doing away with the program would solve problems,” Thom said. “We choose to take the approach to help engage them in the process.”
Sommermeyer approached a student who had posted something inappropriate on a social networking site and asked him if he would say it in the gym with a microphone in front of 400 or more students. When the student said he wouldn’t, Sommermeyer helped him understand it was essentially the same, as the post could be seen by all 400 of his followers or friends on the site.
“There’s no unit, lesson plan or curriculum that’s a silver bullet,” Sommermeyer said. “Sometimes it’s just sharing those types of stories. Those are much more powerful.”
Diehl said any district with this type of technology will have problems with students not using the devices for educational use only.
“Anyone who says they didn’t would be fibbing,” he said.
EACS developed a digital citizenship curriculum with age-appropriate lessons that teach students in every grade about the dangers of sharing information on the Internet, what not to share, how to interact with people and a host of other topics.
The curriculum was taught as part of the two-week rollout of the iPad initiative. Lessons have been added as issues have come up, and those are taught during a one-hour block of alternate scheduling time, Diehl said.
Diehl said for students who “can’t get with the program” for proper use of the iPad, the district can essentially turn the tablet into nothing more than an electronic notebook, restricting the use of the camera, Internet browser and any applications with a four-digit code.
“We have had to do that,” he said. “And we’ve shown parents how to do or we will do it if requested (by parents).”
But it’s a punishment students can come back from after showing they can be responsible with the device, he said.
In light of the armed robbery, East Allen added a new lesson to its digital citizenship curriculum to inform students not to resist someone who’s trying to steal their iPad, Diehl said. The district requires parents to pay a $30 fee that covers insurance for the device in the event it is stolen. Sommermeyer said any electronic device could potentially be stolen whether it’s issued or required by the school or bought for students at home.
A Fort Wayne Community Schools student was beat up and robbed of his personal iPod by a group of his Lane Middle School classmates while he was outside his home early last month.
“This is the world students are living in,” Thom said. “But, walking with them and alongside them is key to their preparation. If they can’t get good instruction or guidance here, where can they get it?”