Apple's iPad Joins the 6th Grade: A Novelty or the Next Big Idea?

It's the must-have tech gadget of the moment, coveted by the biggest names in Hollywood, media, politics and finance.

But this fall, the Apple iPad will find itself in smaller hands.

As educators across the country try to keep pace with technology, Apple's new tablet will be boarding the school bus and carried into to classroom -- the latest teaching tool for schools willing to foot the bill.

VIDEO: The iPad Makes its DebutPlay

But even though it's touted as the next big thing by some educators, others say the high-tech iPad just might not be ready to replace old-fashioned textbooks, pens and paper.

Stephen Repsher, headmaster of the private Sacramento Country Day School in California, said that come fall, every sixth grader in his middle school will be given an iPad, at no extra cost to their parents.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of educational apps for the iPad," he said. "We found that there are so many [that] we felt there was a tremendous opportunity to bridge the gap between the traditional pen and paper and textbook and laptop."

Headmaster: iPad Is 'Another Tool in the Quiver of Tools' Teachers Use

Using capital funds, he said the school administration agreed to purchase the devices for each of the 40 rising 6th graders. (The iPads start at $499, but he said the school received a $30 discount per unit.) If all goes well, they'll roll it out to the older grades as well.

Students will use the sleek tablets to develop reports, conduct research, read e-books and study. For example, using a flash card application, they could study for tests. They could also hook up the iPad to a projector and easily share a multimedia presentation with the class, he said.

"It's just another tool in the quiver of tools that educators use to help children understand and learn and develop critical skills as they move toward college," he said.

In Racine, Wisc., St. Catherine's High School also plans to give each of its sixth and seventh graders an iPad when its new middle school opens this fall. If all goes according to plan, all students and teachers in grades 6-12 will use iPads instead of textbooks by 2012.

Does Research Support the iPad's Potential?

"We want all our teachers to realize that this is our future," said Christopher Olley, the school's president. "We have asked each teacher to come up with a way to improve their [use of] technology from now to 2012."

To cover the expense of the iPads, Olley said parents will pay a $400 technology fee instead of the $300 to $600 they would previously have spent on books. He said the school will help financially-strapped families with the costs.

But some educators say it's not worth it.

"There is no research to show that using one to one laptops – and I would then extend it to iPads – changes how teachers teach or increases student achievement," said Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University, adding that programs that assign one laptop to each school child have been around for more than a decade.

"There is clearly a novelty effect," he said. "If teachers tend to use them in traditional ways of instruction then it will wear off in months. If teachers use them creatively… then that novelty will wear off very slowly."

But Cuban said that the creative approach is uncommon.

He also said that while some schools may be prepared cover the upfront price of the new technology, they might not be anticipating other costs down the road.

"It's not just the putting out the money for the hardware, it's buying the software, it's maintaining the hardware because they break down, they get lost. All of those costs of operation mount tremendously," he said.

After St. Catherine's announced that the iPad would be joining the 6th grade, Racine's local paper, the Journal-Times, published an editorial titled "iPad? iFad? iWait."

While the editorial board commended the school for its willingness to embrace new technology, it also discouraged other schools from following St. Catherine's lead.

iPads Offer Advantages for Modern Classrooms

"There is much unknown about using the iPad in education, such as how rugged they will be in everyday use, whether competitors will offer the same or better features for a lower cost, and whether students will actually find them useful," the editors wrote.

They also said that while children need to know how to use computers, "more crucially, they need the ability to think logically, write clearly and grasp the fundamentals of mathematics."

Sam Gliksman, an educational technology consultant and director of educational technology at the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Calif., said his school is piloting an iPad program that lets 25 students at a time have access to an iPad room.

The devices are attractive, he said, because they quickly and easily give students access to online research libraries, historical archives, documents shared by teachers and other Web-accessible material.

Educational Technologist: Activity on iPads Difficult to Control

But he said that despite those advantages, there is a "quite significant downside with using it in an educational environment."

"It offers managerial challenges," Gliksman said. "You can't control the activity on an iPad the same way you can on a laptop."

Sacramento's Repsher said that because the iPads would sit on the desks, teachers would be able to see if students weren't following along. But Gliksman said the iPads don't provide the same degree of control.

In a classroom where each student has a computer, he said, the school can install monitoring software that lets teachers make sure students are staying on task. But because the iPad only lets one program run at a time, educators can't run monitoring software, leaving students free to roam wherever they'd like online.

And though iPad-friendly schools think they can block students from visiting recreational or inappropriate sites from the devices, Gliksman said "no Web filter can stop a student from getting on Facebook."

iPads Built for Consuming Media, not Creating It

The iPad is also limiting, he said, because it was designed for looking at and listening to media, not necessarily creating it.

Since its launch, the device has been promoted as a "lean-back experience," as a better way to read the news, watch video or surf the Web.

But in schools, especially in elementary and middle school grades, Gliksman said, educators want students to use technology to actively create.

"They're fantastic consumption devices," he said. "Often in a school setting though you would like to have students be able to produce on the computer and they're not really built for that."

Repsher and Olley said they would rely on creativity-focused applications or consider buying add-on keyboards to help students type documents and produce original work. But Gliksman said the issue isn't the keyboard, but the software support.

Though future versions might offer more options, he said, iPads currently don't provide great photo-editing, video-editing or picture-taking capabilities.

"In terms of production, they're not quite as effective, but we go into that with eyes open, knowing that's the case and that it will improve," he said.