A tony prep school in Knoxville, Tennessee has made it mandatory for every student between grades 4 and 12 to own an iPad. That might be a good idea, someday! But being this far ahead of the curve shortchanges students.
However magical it might be, let's not forget the iPad is a first-generation device, with first-generation problems and limitations. It's too expensive, there's not enough education-focused content, it's terrible at productivity, it's distracting. Sure, there are certainly ways in which the iPad really can be a competent learning accessory. Fraser Speirs writes regularly and convincingly about the advantages he's found in his school's iPad pilot program. But the iPad's still not ready yet for schools.
The Webb School of Knoxville says that it chose the iPad to act as both a textbook replacement and a mobile computing device. So let's talk about that first.
As much as school administrators want to believe that the iPad is a cure-all for expensive textbooks and burdensome backpacks, the truth is that it's not either yet. When Webb acknowledges that not all textbooks are available on iBooks or Kindle, they really mean that most aren't. Which means that while, yes, the iPad weighs only 1.5 pounds, it'll still be taking its place in that Jansport along with the same old Biology and Precalculus monsters.
And even the books that are in digital form (excluding the dustier corners of English Lit that can be grabbed for free thanks to Project Guttenberg) aren't so much cheaper than their physical counterparts that they justify the $500 investment the cheapest iPad model represents. And staring at that LCD screen all day? Uncomfortable at best. For developing eyes, maybe worse.
As for computing, you can debate all you want about whether the iPad is viable as a standalone device—if all you need to do is write emails and check your portfolio. But tablets are inherently gadgets you consume things with, not produce. You're not going to write a term paper on your iPad, especially if you need to crank one out just a few hours before class (high school students are still lazy, right? It's been a while). Meaning you're still going to need a laptop or desktop at home.
Can you slap on a keyboard attachment to your tablet? Sure. But those don't allow for true multitasking, and lugging around a spare keyboard undermines a lot of the portability argument. There are iPad cases that have keyboards built in, but they're almost uniformly terrible.
Oh, well. If you can't word process effectively on the iPad, at least you can play a whole lot of Angry Birds in the back of the class. Which I guess could teach you a little bit of physics, but not a lot of ornithology.
Here's the thing, though: at some point, probably not too far into the future, many of these problems will be overcome. Textbooks are coming en masse to the iPad, even if they're not here yet. The price of tablets will plummet in the same way laptops have, and smartphones. There will be an abundance of education apps that will unlock the iPad's true potential as a learning device beyond just being another ebook reader. Apple may someday even adopt a Pixel Qi-type display that's easier on the eyes, or an input method that improves on the onscreen keyboard or keyboard accessories. And when those things happen, the iPad and other tablets will be terrific schoolroom companions.
But they haven't yet. And until they do, forcing the iPad into the hands of students—and making their parents buy or lease them—will be a disservice. Fun experiment, maybe. But the guinea pigs in the classroom should be the ones in the cage.