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Editorial: In Concord schools, iPads are a terrific equalizer

Before Concord’s three new elementary schools opened, inequities in the educational experience offered students in new versus old schools were abundant. Several schools lacked gyms and were not accessible for students or adults with disabilities. The old schools were too crowded to offer all the programs available to students at the newer schools and often too hot or too cold. Playground space was limited.

The opening of Christa McAuliffe, Abbot-Downing and Mill Brook elementary schools eliminated those inequities. Now the “new” schools, Beaver Meadow and Broken Ground, are the old schools, and a new inequality exists: one of technology. Last week, Monitor education reporter Kathleen Ronayne wrote about the excitement created by the school district’s distribution of 1,250 iPads, one for each student at the three new elementary schools. A smaller number will be shared by students at Beaver Meadow and Broken Ground, but that could turn out to be a good thing.

Technologies like the iPad are changing education at all levels. They have many advantages, but what we like most about them is what we like about the district’s decision to build the new schools. The machines make it possible to provide the same up-to-date, high-quality educational experience to all students, rich and poor, including to a greater degree than ever before possible children with disabilities.

The iPads are tools – not a substitute for teachers. They allow students to work at their own speed and teachers to better assess progress, to know whether each student truly understands a concept or has mastered a skill.

The iPads, coupled with high-speed internet service, give students access to the latest information. No more studying science or geography from an outdated textbook. Students love them. They’ve made education exciting. They allow students to make as well as hear music, to create as well as watch a video. With 40,000 educational applications for the iPad, the possibilities seem endless.

It’s too soon to say how much the iPads and other technology will improve student learning. Much will depend on how they are used, but anything that makes learning exciting is a plus.

The district is slowly bringing the two old schools up to speed technologically, but here’s why having to share an iPad is no reason to despair. In a series of experiments called the Hole in the Wall project, MIT professor Sugata Mitra went to some of the poorest places on earth, a slum outside Delhi, India, and a village in Ethiopia. There, he installed a single computer and mouse in a hole in the wall where it would be accessible to children and connected it to the internet. In the slum, eight minutes after the computer was discovered by a 13-year-old boy who’d never used one before, he figured out how to browse the internet and alternate between screens. He called out to other kids. By evening, 70 children had learned the basics of using a computer and navigating the internet, all without adult intervention. In nine months, the children acquired the computer skills of the average Indian secretary.

In another experiment, children in a remote village where no English was taught found the computer, realized that it required English and taught themselves 200 words to talk to the computer and each other. In a third Hole in the Wall experiment, using CDs because there was no internet access, Mitra told poor Tamil-speaking students that the information on the disks was exciting science. When he came back two months later, one child said, “Apart from the fact that the improper replication of DNA can cause genetic diseases, we haven’t understood anything.”

Children want to learn and want to teach each other. In some areas, all they need is encouragement and access to information. The children who learned in groups with a dozen or more kids of all ages around the screen learned even faster than children studying alone. So sharing iPads, at least for a while, may not be a bad thing.

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