Kids using iPads in school

Nate at The Digital Reader has posted a good little recap of the ‘iPads in schools’ debacle that’s been making the news. The short version is that the Los Angeles Unified School District spent a whack of money buying iPads for student use, then had to recall them when the students hacked them to get around the security controls which prevented them from doing anything unauthorized.

I’ve sat on this story for a few days because, as an educator myself, I wasn’t quite sure how I was meant to respond. When I wrote about a similar issue earlier this year—it was laptops, not iPads in that one—I shrugged it off as a failure by those kids in learning that sometimes you just have to suck it up and play by the rules because learning to do that is a part of life. As I wrote then:

“These middle and high school kids are old enough to learn this lesson, and the school-provided computers are an age-appropriate way to teach it. You want to hack stuff? Do it on your home computer. But the school has to install this stuff because otherwise they don’t get the funding to provide you with the shiny toys. So—with all due respect to the younger generation—play nice and don’t be an ass about it. That is a lesson in manners, not a lesson in technology.”

So, what’s different this time around? Well, I think that what I wrote back in July IS true, but I have just spent the week getting an object lesson in an even greater truth: namely, that kids will be kids and that sometimes, we just have to deal with that. I’m the faculty coordinator for our student government, and it was election week. The posters were supposed to be in on Monday, and some of them were not. The speeches were supposed to be in on Tuesday, and some of them were not. One candidate had to have a whole paragraph removed from his because he was promising his fellow students a whole-school trip to the circus and a visit by an ice cream truck if  they voted for him.

But the moment which most stands out in my mind was the teacher who came to report to me that some of them had been talking about the votes at lunchtime and there had been some hurt feeling. “But we talked to them about that!” I protested. And our principal, who has been eavesdropping, started to laugh and laugh. “Oh, you’re so cute,” she told me.

I hadn’t been trying to be cute, of course. I’d sat down with the kids three times already and talked to them about this stuff, and it had all gone home in an email to the parents too. But…kids will be kids, you know? Even the best ‘talk’ in the world doesn’t change that. So, what should we be doing here? Should we be recalling thousands of dollars in technology just because kids are curious? Should we be responding with fear and with threats when they try and venture out of the box we prescribe for them?

I think that, like anything else involving kids, there has to be a best practices here that involves reasonable—not draconian—precautions, coupled with a dash of common sense. Sure, give them the Serious Talk first. Explain to them about the funding, which requires that the machines be outfitted a certain way. Encourage them to explore within the parameters you establish, then to go home and explore a little further—with their parents, maybe—on their own equipment and to respect the hard work the school did in starting this dialogue by keeping to the rules when they play on school toys.

A fair percentage of the kids will probably listen. And the ones who don’t? Well, you patiently explain it to them again, because kids will be kids, and sometimes that goes with the territory. For a repeat offender, there can of course be consequences. But perhaps they can focus less on the ‘you’re bad’ aspect and more on the whys behind the rule. What about sending them into the IT room for volunteer shifts, so they can learn that skill too and so that they can begin to appreciate what goes into maintaining the machines? What about workshopping out a code of conduct with them before you give them the tablets in the first place?

The kids in my life are fortunate that the Beloved works in IT, and he and I are both interested enough in technology that we have a healthy enough gadget stash at home for them to play with. They will not need to restrict their exploring to only the areas their schools deem safe. But some kids don’t have any option. The school provides it, or they don’t partake. And the school can’t provide it if they don’t agree to certain standards. That is a lesson we do need teach our kids. But we also need to teach our adults that nobody’s perfect and that kids will sometimes just be kids. It is not realistic to expect that nobody will try to test the boundaries.