Editorial: Plan wisely for tablet use in schools

School-issued tablets, notebooks and other digital devices are filling the backpacks of thousands of suburban students, and it’s a trend not likely to slow.

“There’s no doubt that the use of tablets in classrooms is one of the biggest technological changes on the educational landscape,” Stevenson High School spokesman Jim Conrey told reporter Russell Lissau, who wrote about the Lincolnshire school’s addition of iPad tablets for every freshman next year.

Other districts also have committed to the devices’ use, though some taxpayers might see them as an extravagance. Educators get just as starry-eyed over new technology as the rest of us, and why shouldn’t they? Kids are growing up with lightning-fast change in the electronic tools we use every day. This is the world they know and will need to keep knowing, and schools are adapting.

But how they adapt is key. Without good policies and solid technology plan that includes training and evaluation, the tablet revolution — called “one-to-one” programs by educators — could amount to little more than handing kids high-tech notebooks at best or, worse, free video gaming.

Gurnee Elementary District 56, for one, is rolling out its iPad initiative for middle-schoolers this week and appears to be doing things right by involving parents in a checkout night with consent forms, user agreements, guidelines and a downloadable instruction manual. It cannot stop there, however, nor can administrators be certain those 46-page manuals will be read.

Perhaps the most important way to make these devices as cost-effective as possible is to ensure teachers on the front lines have the training to use them to their fullest and to focus the instruction on learning, not the device.

But there are other ways, too.

The 24/7 Internet access is a bonanza for kids who didn’t have it previously, and some may require reining in. The addition of “digital citizenship” lessons to the curriculum could reinforce good behavior, touching on subjects such as online bullying, appropriate camera use and the dangers of sharing certain information.

It’s naive to think students will use the tablets only for classwork, even while at school, and savvy users will get around school firewalls. Administrators should keep a close eye on and update firewall protections as necessary, Meanwhile, schools need adequate technological support. Long waits for repairs of a broken or virus-inflicted computer will diminish the benefits.

For parents’ part, they have the right and responsibility to restrict and intervene against inappropriate use, and their training should be part of any introduction.

Devices that put the world at students’ fingertips are a double-edged sword. Allegations of cheating through them are being investigated at Naperville Central High School. However, educators have seen reluctant readers take more interest in assignments, and tablets can help special needs students communicate. With the right policies and good training and communication, these devices will positively change the face of education.

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