iPads a valuable investment for school district

As students head back to school this year in the Watertown-Mayer district, they’ll be toting a new gadget with them on the first day of school — and every day after that.

As you’re probably already aware, the school district is launching its iPad initiative this year, called Toolbox 21, where each student is issued an Apple iPad. The school held training sessions last week for students and their parents to be issued a device and to learn the basics about the program.

I really haven’t heard much feedback in the community regarding the program, which I generally take as a good sign. The district is certainly excited about the program’s launch — as it should be — and I would expect most of the students, parents and teachers to be equally excited. But I also suspect there must be at least some skepticism in the community, especially from those who don’t have children in the district.

After all, the program certainly isn’t cheap. The initial 5-year lease will cost the district $1.28 million, or roughly $255,784 per year.
And certainly, the students don’t need an iPad. They could continue to learn with textbooks, pencils and papers, just like students have done for years. It worked for me — I can read and write, I know my basic math, geography and history, I got into a good college and managed to land myself a job.

But the reality is, this isn’t the same world you or I grew up in — and I graduated from high school fewer than 10 years ago. When I was in school, it took nearly a minute for the dial-up modem at my family’s home to grind and churn out an internet connection, seemingly the same amount of time it took to fully load any new Web Page you’d try to visit. Now, I don’t even have to be at a computer to log online — I can simply pull out my phone.

The point is, technology is changing daily, it dominates our modern world, and it’s imperative that our students are prepared not just to live in the world that surrounds them now, but the unknown world we’ll live in 10 years from now, 20 years from now and 50 years from now. If students aren’t prepared to live in today’s world, they certainly won’t be prepared to live in tomorrow’s world.

The benefits of a digital classroom are certainly numerous. As W-M High School senior Ellie Poikonen mentions in a column in Page 3, the devices will enhance communication between teachers and students during non-school hours, provide quick and easy online access for all students to do research and complete assignments, and probably most importantly, allow for more interactive ways of learning than tradition textbooks allow by using video, apps, audio, and other multimedia platforms. This interactive approach will make learning more exciting, fun and even cool in the minds of many students.

All those benefits are well and good, but to me, the biggest benefits of this iPad initiative are not how it will transform the classroom and the way kids learn. Rather, the biggest benefit is emphasizing to our students that technology is an important part of our world, and they better know how to use it. Technology is changing by the minute, and if our kids don’t keep up, they’re going to be left behind. Kudos to the Watertown-Mayer school district for realizing that. The local district isn’t a trailblazer by any means with a program like this, but it certainly is staying ahead of the curve and running with the leaders, instead of chasing the pack.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s important to stay amongst the leaders when it comes to technology, because once you start to lag behind, it’s awfully tough to catch up, and there begins a slippery slope toward technological illiteracy. That’s something I realized recently in my personal life, and it’s more out of fear than anything else that I’m trying to keep up with the modern world.

It was only about 5 or 6 months ago that I purchased my first smartphone, finally leaving behind the old flip phone and T9-word method of texting. If you don’t know what T9-word means, either you advanced beyond that method of texting with a regular numeric keypad so long ago that you’ve already forgotten about it, or, more likely, you’re so far behind in the technological world that you’re the person I fear becoming one day.
You see, I don’t need my iPhone. I was adamant of that before I bought it, saying it was a waste of money. All I needed a phone for was calling and texting, and my flip phone did that just fine. To me, the idea of a smartphone was nothing more than carrying Facebook around in my pocket, and I could certainly wait until I got home to log onto Facebook.

Even now that I have an iPhone, and knowing how much it’s enhanced and improved my life and everything I can do with it — trust me, it’s a lot more than just Facebook — I still know I could live just fine without one. But what’s next? How many new technological innovations do I need to ignore and shun before I’m completely inept when it comes to technology?

Today, a large portion of our older generation is scared of technology because they didn’t keep up from the start. I don’t blame them, either, because their mindsets were the same as mine. Why would I want to spend money on that? My typewriter is working just fine.
But what seemed like a small thing at the time, one “ridiculous” product that somebody didn’t need, eventually grew into more and more things they didn’t need.

Today, many — but certainly not all — seniors are so far behind when it comes to technology that they’re afraid to try to catch up. Many of them probably would love to know how to use computers, but feel it would just be far to challenging and painful to learn. I bet given the chance to go back in time, knowing what the world looks like today, the first thing they’d do differently the second time around is not let technology pass them by in the first place, because once you’re behind, it’s just so intimidating to try to catch up.

And that’s the real reason I bought my new phone. Twenty years from now, when the school-age students of today are using their thoughts to send each other messages via computer chips implanted on their brains, I don’t want to be the old guy trying to send them an e-mail or a text. Thirty years from now, when the young whippersnappers have an internal computer in their body to instantaneously look up information based solely on brain wavelengths, I don’t want to be the guy still waiting 0.3 seconds for Google to pull up only 8 trillion Web hits from around the world.

Sure, my not buying a smartphone or some other new device today wouldn’t make me computer illiterate immediately. I like to think I’m still at least somewhat computer savy. But it’s that slippery slope I’m trying desperately to avoid.

That’s why, to me, it’s so important our school kids of today stay ahead of the curve with technology. If they’re not learning it and using it, somebody else is. If they start to fall behind now and someday are intimidated to learn  to operate the new 2050 Toyota Jetpack, it’s going to take them an awful long time to get anywhere on an airplane. They’ll be stuck in air traffic, watching the younger generations whiz right past them.

Matt Bunke is the editor of the Carver County News. To reach him, send an email to matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com.

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