In what they are calling "a revolution in education," the Auburn, Maine, school district will be bringing the $499 Apple tablet devices into kindergarten classrooms starting in the fall with the aim of increasing literacy rates from 62 percent to 90 percent.
This isn't the first time Maine has become an early tech adopter in its educational systems. In 2002, it became the first state to give out laptop computers to its middle school students and later expanded the program to high schoolers as a part of a move to boost literacy.
Some critics have blasted the iPad plan — saying the school district should not putting high-tech hardware in the hands of kindergartners and that they shouldn't be investing a large sum of money, especially amid budget cuts that could take away teacher instruction.
"We received some concern from individuals mainly about the developmental age in kids using this type of technology and the cost of it all," school district superintendent Tom Morrill told iPadNewsDaily. "However, we also received great comments and feedback from all over the world from supporters and experts saying that the device is indeed instrumental in helping young children learn, especially with special education students, people with speech issues and other learning challenges."
"Overall, we think we're going to make some remarkable discoveries and believe this is the next-step tool in helping literacy."
Child development experts indeed believe that iPads are exactly what could help young students better learn in the classroom.
"If you start them young with innovative technology and keep them engaged, it's the way to go. There will be some changes in how teachers will go about incorporating these new platforms, but overall, it will be a very profound tool if used properly."
One of the major challenges teachers face is catering content to each student in a classroom filled with different skill levels. With the help of educational software on the iPad 2, teachers can oversee and pick programs and levels based on the skills a student needs.
"The iPad 2 can cater specifically to each child's needs, strengths and weaknesses, and that has tremendous potential for improving the overall learning experience," Calvert said.
However, Calvert stressed that technology like this should not replace or undermine the importance of a good teacher.
"There's a human emotional response that is a part of learning, too," Calvert said. "Kids develop relationships with teachers and there is a sense of warmth and encouragement that comes with that, too. Computers can be fun and engaging, but it's not the same experience as interacting with a real person."
Superintendent Morrill said that people shouldn’t fear that the new iPad implementation will replace teachers in the future.
"The human element will never leave the formula because education is still a human business," Morrill said. "This will just provide an opportunity to spend more focus time on developing projects, helping students overcome certain challenges and give teachers new ways to custom teach."
How young is too young?
Although Seton Hall University in New Jersey welcomed incoming students with new iPads last year and middle school students in parts of Singapore have traded school books for e-books read on the iPad, this will be one of the first times students at such a young age in U.S. will be given the high-tech devices.
But some believe people of any age, especially kindergartners, are good candidates to use the iPad 2, which is even (as of today) now available for purchase at Toys R Us.
"Kindergartners are not too young for the iPad — in fact, it's an ideal platform for them," Calvert said. "This age group can use their hands, grow fine motor skills and not have to worry about moving a mouse as they would on a traditional desktop computer. Since an iPad is so light and intuitive to use, their focus can be on the educational content and not the hardware."
The device also allows kids to practice certain skills, such as identifying certain letters and colors.
However, superintendent Morrill said that the devices will not be used in place of other hands-on skills that are critical in the development process.
"Kids still need to jump in and get dirty," Morrill said. "They need to paint and do fine-motor activities, as well as sing, dance and share stories. We're not going to be replacing these acitivities. We're only talking about integration."
Allison Druin, author of "Mobile Technology for Children: Designing for Interaction and Learning" (Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2009) agrees that the tablet is well-suited for this age range.
"Kids are used to growing up in a technology age, so they will know how to handle it," Druin said. "The iPod Touch is similar in that it can be used with kids at a young age, but when creating something rather than just consuming information, it’s harder to do so on smaller screens."
"Like any other tool, if used effectively and appropriately, there are endless opportunities," Edwards said. "It's not going to solve every educational dilemma and will definitely create a new set of challenges — such as trying to keep kids focused on what you want them to do — but overall, this is a very good thing."
Calvert also noted that the quality of the apps the children use will also help determine the success of the pilot of program in Maine.
"If the right software is selected, young children will be entering the educational sphere with such enthusiasm and excitement," Calvert said. "However, if the software is boring and dry, a child will lose interest."
Druin, an associate dean for research at University of Maryland's information school, said she thinks the outcome of the Maine initiative could have implications for whether or not similar programs crop up around the country.
"Mobile technology is the wave of the future, so you can either try to fight it or figure out ways to use it to the best advantage," Druin said.