By Sally Absher

Knox County Schools announced last Monday that Bearden Middle School and Carter Middle School have been selected to participate in the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS) program directed by Digital Promise.

Through this program, these two schools will create innovative learning environments powered by mobile technology.  Students will receive “always-available” Internet access and personal tablet devices to use for learning in the classroom and at home, and teachers will be provided personalized professional learning opportunities, including participation in a national community of practice.

Verizon is donating iPad Air 2 tablets and 5 GB per month data plans to Digital Promise, who will provide them to every student at Bearden and Carter middle schools, two of the 13 schools in six districts across the country selected by Digital Promise for the 2015-2016 school year.

Both schools are assigned a coach to help teachers set and realize their goals for learning.  In addition, each school will document stories, perspectives, and lessons from participating educators, school leaders and students.  The resulting stories, resources, and policies will be shared continuously online, creating a “behind the scenes” guidebook for educators going through similar processes in their own schools.

But conspicuously absent from the press release were answers to the questions that should be going through every parent’s mind – “What happens if my kid breaks it?”  “What if my kid goes over the 5 GB monthly data allowance? Who pays?” And, “What is KCS doing to make sure kids don’t stream porn on the device?”

No doubt Verizon worked out a sweet deal for Digital Promise (and got a sweet tax break because of it), but what would you, the parent, pay to provide an iPad Air 2 and two years of minimal data for your child? Let’s assume that you don’t have an existing Verizon data share plan and will need to pay a monthly data fee.

According to the Verizon website, the cost for a base 16 GB model iPad Air 2 with a 2-year contract is $429.99 ($629.99 retail). Monthly charges for stand-alone data plans range from $40 (4 GB) to $70 (10 GB,) so 5GB would cost roughly $45/month. Since middle school kids are between 12 – 14 years old and accidents happen, you would be wise to insure your device for another $7-9 per month (with a $149 deductible for accidental breakage).

Over a two year period, assuming your child didn’t break or lose the device, you would pay over $1,700 for the device, data, and insurance. Plus taxes and fees.  And data overage charges.

KCS says the VILS program, launched in 2012 in partnership with the International Society for Technical Education (ISTE), has worked with 24 elementary, middle and high schools, 229 teachers and 11,500 students across the country.  An ISTE-supported evaluation revealed that the program’s results are promising: In each of the past two school years, students at participating schools made stronger gains in mathematics and science than students at comparison schools.

Yet not everyone agrees. In 2011, Matt Richtel at the New York Times wrote about the Waldorf School in Los Altos, CA, where employees of Silicon Valley giants Google, Apple, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, and eBay send their children. Computers and other electronic media are conspicuously absent, and the school “frowns on their use at home.”

“Here in the epicenter of the tech economy, the message of parents and educators is computers and schools don’t mix. The Waldorf School of the Peninsula is one of 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks.”

Waldorf parent Alan Eagle, who has a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, says, “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”

And Paul Thomas, a former teacher and associate professor of education at Furman University who has written 12 books about public educational methods, disagrees that schools that don’t use technology tools are “cheating” children.  “Teaching is a human experience,” he said. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking.”

Last May,  Martha Ross at the San Jose Mercury News (“Why we need to separate kids from tech –now”) cited Richard Freed, a Walnut Creek child and adolescent psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Debunking Popular Technology Myths.”  Freed said that “digital entertainment is now the dominant activity in (kids) lives.” He and other media and educational experts agree that is not a recipe for a balanced, well-adjusted life.

Parents are “eager to equip their kids with the latest laptops, tablets, and smart phones, whereas a decade ago they would have strictly limited their children’s TV viewing.” And there is a constant drumbeat from the tech industry that “early, regular, and in some cases unlimited use of technology is essential for kids to be technically proficient and academically competitive in the 21st century.”

“Technology isn’t the problem,” says Freed.  The problem comes when screen time is overused and displaces family, school and other experiences that Freed says are “fundamental to a strong mind and a happy, successful life.”

Some of the strongest statements about limiting kids’ technology use come from none other than Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Both Gates and Jobs reportedly set strict time limits for how much technology their kids used at home.

Just how plugged in are today’s kids? A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children 8- to 18-years-old spend up to “six total hours a day watching TV, playing computer games, or immersed in social media, YouTube videos, or movies on their iPads and smartphones. Teenagers may spend an additional 2 1/2 hours a day texting or talking on the phone.”

The study added that kids spend only about 16 minutes a day using a computer at home for homework.

And there are physical effects as well. In addition to an increase in childhood obesity from a sedentary lifestyle, long periods of staring at a screen can cause to neck pain which can lead to trapped nerves in shoulders, arm pain, and headaches, according to physiotherapist Sammy Margo. Research also shows that light from screens can affect the quality of sleep, as well as capability to dream.

Finally, there are concerns about internet safety and security.  Audrey Watters at the Atlantic reported that almost immediately after receiving their school-issued iPads in 2013, students in Indiana and California managed to bypass the security on the devices, “hacking” them for non-schoolwork purposes: listening to music, checking social media, and surfing the web.

As a result, the Lost Angeles School District decided not to allow students to take their iPads home – one of the key perks of the “24-7” learning that mobile devices are supposed to support.

Waters adds that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries that receive federal E-rate funds to monitor minors’ Internet usage and to filter sites that are obscene, pornographic, and/or harmful to minors. But Facebook , Pandora, and  YouTube don’t fall into those categories, and it’s not clear whether CIPA extends to students’ use of school-issued devices at home.

Using easily obtained computer techniques, students can quickly defeat most controls a school system puts on the iPads and laptops to restrict improper internet surfing. The only way to stop them is to restrict all internet access to a proxy server controlled by KCS, but there are ways to get around that too. Sexting and access to inappropriate internet sites are all too common among students. Many school districts have stopped iPad programs because they can’t prevent students from finding ways to bypass filters and other restrictions on the devices.