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As the masochist who has taken it upon himself to document all of the businesses and schools that are rolling out iPads, I’m obviously a big believer in Steve Jobs’ PC-killer. But doubts do occasionally rise up.  

Case in point: a small public school district in central Maine just announced plans to give away iPad 2s to all 300 of its kindergarten students.  The school district plans to spend $200,000 for the iPads, which students will use as an in-classroom teaching aid and will be able to take home with them.

“What it’s about is young people having in their hands a tool that  will customize and accelerate their learning,” Auburn’s superintendent told the local newspaper.

As someone who evangelizes mobility full-time for an enterprise mobility  software vendor in the most high-tech region in the world but was still issued a 4-year-old greige Dell laptop by my company, suffice to say that I am totally jealous of these kids.

Besides my envy, I also wondered: how useful will tablets really be? Has iPad hype become so overwhelming that we’ve jumped the shark into the territory of badly-planned, wasteful deployments?

Auburn is a small town that as far as I can tell from the story, has neither been an aggressive user of technology. With a median family income of $44,000, it is also not one of those upper-middle-class enclaves where the parents and kids are all wired.

Call me cautious, but my philosophy usually is: it’s better to walk before you try to run.

Moreover, Auburn is hoping to win $200,000 in grants to pay for the iPads. If it doesn’t win them, it will take that money out of its budget, which only totals $36 million a year.

I don’t know the specifics of Auburn’s budget situation, but I’ve certainly read many stories about how cash-strapped districts around the country are these days.

The potential zero-sum implications worry me. If Auburn doesn’t get the grants it’s hoping for, will it be forced to cover its iPad 2 investment by laying off 4 teachers?

My biggest lingering doubt was whether iPads will simply be wasted on kids who can barely read or type (but are really really good at breaking things).

Will the results be as absurd, to quote a popular book for kids this age, as giving a pig a pancake?

But then I started thinking about my own boys, aged 7 and 5, in first grade and kindergarten, respectively.

For them, the iPad’s apps, including non-specifically educational ones, have proven to be a super learning tool.

They build their vocabulary every time they play Hangman, Fish School, Super Why or a plethora of other PBS Kids games.

They draw and doodle using Brushes.

They improve their visualization and strategic skills playing Dots and Tic-Tac-Toe.

They learn the value of money whenever they pay me out of their personal money stash to buy $0.99 updates at the App store.

They read and write e-mails by exchanging them with my dad, their grandpa. And become pretty good hunt-and-peck typists, to boot.

They’ve learned a surprising amount about weather from checking the forecasts on my apps, about different fruits and veggies by farming their Smurfs, as well as the basics of geometry and physics through Glass Tower and Angry Birds.

Which is more productive: doling out iPads to kindergarteners or offering baked goods to antlered mammals? The former, overwhelmingly.

Auburn is also not foolishly pursuing their vision alone. Here’s a sampling of schools from my iPad deployment list that are also giving iPads to kindergarteners:

– Bialik College in Victoria, Australia;

– Cedars School of Excellence in Scotland;

– Marymount School in New York City;

– St. Andrew’s School in Savannah, Georgia;

– Unity Point School in Carbondale, Illinois;

– Universal School in Tardeo, India;

– Virginia Beach district in Virginia;

Educators and researchers have by no means reached a consensus yet. But an increasing number recognize the role that iPads and other tablets can play in the classroom and outside-of-school learning.

That’s good enough for me. Because with unstoppable technology trends, I’d rather be riding the wave rather than being swamped by it. Now, if only my CIO felt the same way…

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  1. Ajay Das
    I bought an ipad a month back. After couple of days decided it wasn’t of much use to me, certainly not to be used how I use my laptop today.

    I do see it as a novel tool for kids and there is a lot of learning at their level that can be done on the ipad. Primarily because of novelty I guess, but also because apps are more interactive and customizable which makes it more exciting and engaging for them. I do see its value as a parent.

    I decided it is something my kids(7,5) can use, me not so much. I now have a second ipad on its way (from Shenzen; expected tomorrow – not available in stores here) so both kids have one at the same (fun/learn) time.

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    1. Eric Lai Post author
      Great comments, Ajay, though my experience is slightly different. I agree that this is a fantastic device with young kids for play, learning, or best yet, some app that combines the both. But I disagree with your dismissal for biz use. I’ve found my iPad to be extremely useful on the road, when my Dell laptop is too delicate and heavy (4.5 pounds, with charger) to bring, or out of juice (max 90 minute battery life, no kidding). Plus, harvesting pumpkins in The Smurfs is a great way to relax after answering 30 e-mails…

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  2. Stephen Johannes
    Being an somewhat adopter of the original ipad(owned/used since middle April last year), I can tell you that preschooler apps were fine when my daughter was three.  In fact she is so used to using the ipad that she thinks every computer screen should be a touchscreen.  We of course limit her time she can use the device(just like television), or otherwise she can/would play on it for hours.  We found the best way to drain the battery is to let a preschooler play “Monkey preschool lunchbox” for extended periods of time.

    After seeing the schools announcements, it makes my joke to my wife about sending my daughter to kindergarten with the old iPad not so outrageous.  The funny part is the iPad craze really that much different from the Commodore/TI/Tandy/early Apple home computer phase?  I think we tend to forget that word and excel are not the end all/be all of what makes a device useful.

    I wouldn’t say jumping the shark, but further proof the device is going way mainstream.  We fail to remember the old saying the “medium is the message”. 

    Take care,

    Stephen 

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