iPads for Young Children in School

Occasionally, I receive letters from parents concerned about the rollout of 1:1 iPads in their elementary school, especially for five to eight year-olds. The parents who write me may have concerns about the uses of devices in schools but, in this case, the Mom and Dad are concerned about their children and how the principal and staff are putting the 1:1 program into practice.

Here is one letter I recently received and answered. I have deleted the name of the school, principal, and parents who sent me the letter.


Dear Larry Cuban,

We have been attempting to influence better practices for 1:1 teaching practices with iPads at our daughters’ elementary school [in Southern California] for 4 months now.

Towards the end of last school year, the school announced they were going to implement [a 1:1   iPad program] starting in the fall.  At first we were open to the idea, but after much research of journal articles we realized that the school is following a trend rather than implementing correctly.  We agree that implementing technology is inevitable and there are likely good ways to enhance learning, but are very disappointed at how our daughters’  school is implementing it.  At this point, because many parents are not buying their kids iPads, the school is stuck in a worse situation…a hybrid of school shared iPads and kids with their own.  The school has even teamed up with Project Red, but [is not] even following Project Red’s guidelines.

[The parents sent me a recent letter that the principal sent to everyone in school community.]

A message from _______ ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Families of __________,
In April, we shared with you a plan for our [1:1] initiative to personalize learning for our … students utilizing technology tools. Over the past month, the staff and I have listened to parents’ voices and have heard both support and reservations around this proposed program. As a result of that input, we have decided to pause and rethink our next steps.
We now realize that while the staff and I enthusiastically created and rolled out this plan for transforming student learning, we had not fully engaged our parent community in the process. The … parent community has always been closely knit and very supportive. We need and want your support and we truly value your input.

As the staff and I rethink next steps, we will be communicating opportunities for you to engage with us and share your ideas about technology and learning.
While we are pausing on our full implementation of [1:1], we remain firm in our belief that technology can enhance student learning and ensure that each one of our students reaches his or her potential. Staff will continue to integrate technology into their daily lessons. We will also continue to provide options to any K-5 family who would like to purchase an iPad through the district for their child to use at school or to have their child bring an iPad from home. We will continue to have shared devices in the classroom to support teaching and learning.
Families wishing to purchase an iPad through the district should return your Option Letter by May 30, 2014. We will be following up with those of you who have already returned your letters requesting to purchase an iPad through the district to confirm your selection.

The staff and I value and appreciate your involvement and support. Thank you for engaging in this conversation and for being part of our process. We look forward to working together as we move forward.


We’ve been attempting to influence the Principal and also the school board without success.  We believed there will be no substantial impact except extra cost to parents and the school after reading articles from your website.  I’ve read many journal articles about technology implementation in schools and generally find:

1) We cannot find any success stories in grades lower than 3rd or 4th grade….
2) all success stories seem to be subjective rather than showing statistically significant and measurable improvements

We are trying to remain hopeful and wondering if you can help us with any of the following:
1) can you point us to any case studies or journal articles (if any) that show statistically significant success and proper ways to implement 1:1?  We are especially interested in success in lower grades (K-3)….

LC: I do not have any studies to offer you. There may be single studies out there that do show success–as measured by increased student scores on standardized tests–but they are rare indeed. And single studies seldom forecast a trend. Overall, there is no substantial body of evidence that supports the claim that laptops, ipads, or devices in of themselves will produce increases in academic achievement or alter traditional ways of teaching. As you said in your email, anecdotes trump statistically significant results again and again when it comes to use of devices with young children and youth.

The claims that such devices will increase engagement of students in classwork and the like are supported. Keep in mind, however, two caveats: first, there is a novelty effect that advocates mistake for long-term engagement in learning but the effect wears off. And even if the effect is sustainable the assumption that engagement leads to academic gains or higher test scores remains only that–an assumption.

 2) do you have any advice on influencing better practices with the Principal or school board?

LC: Looks like your principal erred in ignoring a first principle of implementation: inform and discuss any innovation with parents before launching it. Just consider the massive foul up in Los Angeles Unified School District in their iPad purchase and deployment. It does, however, look like, at least from the principal’s letter that you sent me calling for a pause, that you and others may have, indeed, had some influence.

When I receive letters like yours I reply with the same advice. Go to the school and see how k-2 teachers use the devices over the course of a day. I know that such visits take a lot of time but such observations sort out the rhetoric from what actually occurs–some of which you may like, some of which you may not. I do not know your principal; she might get threatened and defensive or she might be the kind that will seek out help from parents in her efforts to implement iPads.

 In short, gather data on what is going on at [your elementary school]. Going to the school board without such data is futile.




Filed under technology use

21 responses to “iPads for Young Children in School

  1. Thank you. I would add that Project Red is an industry-funded project with vested interests in the sales of devices to school districts. Any advice or “research” they offer should be understood in that context.

  2. Our elementary school was going to implement a 1:1 iPad scheme a couple years ago. After I had an engaging conversation with the principal in my capacity as technology coordinator he agreed to a couple of classroom sets in order to work out the “bugs” that might possibly occur in a 1:1 implementation. After a year there has been no further discussion of 1:1 iPads. We have brought classroom sets of laptop/tablet pcs into the 6 – 8 classrooms and moved the iPad sets to the lower grades. There is no intent to get more iPads. The amount of evidence towards the “think before you leap into 1:1” is massive. IPad are great if the plan is to teach iPad use. Other than that they do not seem to generate enough educational return to justify the initial cost or the cost of support.

  3. We have 1:1 (sort of) iPads in my Grade 1 year. By ‘sort of’, I mean we have 4 classes of 25 (100 kids in Grade 1) and we have a set of 30 iPads. So, we often use them 1:1 – with a roster to ensure their availibility – or can spread them across classes for use by groups, etc. We use them for all sorts of things: Researching, watching videos, making videos, making audio recordings, taking photos, a range of apps such as for mind-mapping (Popplet is awesome), Mathletics, etc etc etc. We had a similar question from our School Parents: “What data are you collecting to gauge their effectiveness and impact on improved learning?”. Our ICT team’s response was, perhaps cheekily, along the lines of “That’s like asking us to collect data on the ways in which pens improve learning outcomes”. The message the team were trying to convey is that – similarly to you said – an iPad alone, the mere presence of them or the most basic of uses, won’t do anything to improve learning! They’re a tool, just another tool of many. We have many such tools at schools; ranging from, yes, pens… IPads, to books, text books, worksheets, cameras, maths manipulative, flash cards, games, sports equipment, the list goes on. We use iPads to compliment the learning program and to enhance that learning in some way. Some people – teachers, principals, parents, general public – are seeing them as a magic bullet. An educational cure-all. They’re brilliant, and I feel (without having data on it, of course) that we’re using them for some great purposes, but at the end of the day, it’s just another classroom resource. Obviously iPads are very expensive (especially if parents are expected to pay) so if they are used, we do need to make sure that teachers are trained to use them effectively – otherwise, yes, it is an costly gadget and could easily be ‘faddish’ if they’re left to collect dust or only used for the same old thing. For me, the question isn’t about whether they’re worth while, or even whether they improve engagement or academic achievement; the question is whether the benefits account for the large costs. A cost:benefit ratio for iPads in schools might make for an interesting study!

    • larrycuban

      The parents who wrote to me also read this blog, so your experiences and attitudes toward iPads teaching Year 1 kids in Melbourne may be helpful. Thanks

    • Technology in the schools is always a good discussion. Are the benefits worth the cost? I am definitely not an advocate of 1:1 or iPads BUT I do believe we must teach kids how to use technology just like we teach them how to use math or English. The only way to do that is have the devices on hand in the school and have the teachers use them with the kids in a learning situation. As the school tech I have a very strong dislike for iPads. They are a management nightmare but that does not change the fact they are a very useful tool that kids should learn to use. I like the pen analogy in Teachling’s comment. Technology is a very powerful pen. Ipad use may not be something that is reflected on standardized test scores but so what? The US education system focuses way too much on test scores and not enough on learning. But that is a whole different conversation.

  4. In terms of general guidelines to use when thinking about technology and young children, I’ve found these to be thoughtful and relevant. Problem is, as you suggest, most leaders don’t take the time to think about the use of technology at any level in deeply thoughtful and relevant ways.

    • Yes, and on the topic of leaders’ and ICT- Should it be any surprise that the prospective parent school tours are marched through out Year 1 classrooms while the kids are using the iPads, so they can ooh-aah at our whizz-bang technology?

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for telling us how prospective parents who come to school to see Year 1 classes in Melbourne are managed.

    • larrycuban

      I had not seen the recently adopted statement and guidelines from NAEYC on technology. Thanks, Will.

  5. Pingback: iPads and pens in the classroom | Garth's CS Education Blog

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