George Lucas Educational Foundation
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At the highest performing urban school in the city of Providence, Rhode Island, the mantra when it comes to education is "children always come first." And it isn't easy.

Like most public charter schools, the Paul Cuffee School strives to provide the same excellence in educational technology as nearby public schools, but because resources must primarily be allocated to paying salaries and leasing school buildings, extra money for technology is scarce.

Future Shock

Michael Obel-Omia, Head of School at Paul Cuffee, is constantly analyzing the needs of his students and faculty within the context of a long-range plan for IT integration that skates on a shoestring budget. His fundamental question?

In March of 2010, no one had even heard of an iPad. Now, two years later, there are 50 million of them. This is new technology, and the computing world has so much fluidity. How do I know that something newer won't take its place after my school has sacrificed to make a huge investment in tablets? The Amazon Kindle is less money than the iPad, but will it survive? The HP tablet was taken off the market! This is like choosing VHS or Beta. What if we choose wrong?

This anxiety might be found in any public school, but in a socioeconomically disadvantaged school like Paul Cuffee, with a population that includes 89% racial minorities, 77% students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and 46% from families living in deep poverty (with household incomes at less than half the federal poverty level), the stakes are exceptionally high when spending decisions are made. An iPad does not cost $500, even if that's what it says on the sticker. It costs $500 plus the expense of training, IT support and eventual upgrade or replacement. Technology purchases must be made wisely and strategically, and there is no room for error. According to Obel-Omia:

Technology is a tool, not a solution. What really matters in the classroom is teacher quality -- the human component of education. While we must prepare our students to be successful in a high-tech world, for this population of kids, there really is nothing more important than excellent teachers. There is no metric for how they "ignite the flame." We must make tough choices here.

Striking a Virtual-Actual Balance

The term "digital divide" used to refer to whether classrooms had computers and Internet connections. Today, there is a new kind of digital divide. Now that most American schools have basic hardware and connectivity, there is a sharp socioeconomic division between those that have savvy tech professionals and the high-speed connections that can support WiFi-dependent tablets or laptops, and those that lack these basic internal support structures for individual student devices, let alone the funds to purchase them for all students.

Further, there is a divide between those students who have parents able to support their technology use and learning at home, and those who do not. At Paul Cuffee, parents tend to be "connected" in that they have smartphones and computers, but they are often unable to supervise their children's understanding and use of technology at home due to a variety of cultural, economic and educational factors. This practice at home is critical to a child's ability to take advantage of what is taught in school. As schools become more technologically advanced, many homes do not keep up.

Then there are the trade-offs all schools face when allocating instructional time. As Obel-Omia explains:

It may be sexy and exciting to put a laptop or iPad into every student's hand. But if it doesn't teach critical thinking, reflection, compassion, citizenship -- is this the best investment for these kids? Skilled adults are needed in the lives of students to make an iPad more than a toy.

And if you ask the teachers and administrators at Paul Cuffee how they rank the priorities, you will hear the same conversations over and over about the pressing need for students to have "authentic experiences" such as field trips. For these teachers, virtual experiences on the computer take a back seat to real visits to museums, libraries and other cultural institutions that fit seamlessly ino the daily lives of most middle- and upper-middle-class children.

In any discussion about technology involving the phrase "education will be revolutionized," one has to wonder how to strike the optimal balance between the virtual world and the real world for each child.

Obel-Omia concludes:

There's a car commercial that talks about how the car can be used to "explore the world wide world," as opposed to the World Wide Web. I feel it's our responsibility to help our students unplug and explore their world. It's so amazing. Our kids live only a few miles from the beach, yet many of them have never seen the ocean until we take them there.

How might we best strike that balance between virtual and "real" world, particularly for more disadvantaged kids? Have you seen any good examples you'd like to share?

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Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Byron's picture

This article brings up a good point about the additional costs once a tablet is in the students hands. Further the biggest issue for school districts moving forward is the lack of bandwidth! In California, there are rumblings from the state department of education about a desire to have a minimum bandwidth of 20Mbps per student to support the launching of online testing. If we put a tablet in every students hand then we also have to invest in the infrastructure. I work at a school site that has a very high ratio of computers to students, but students are unable to use some software because of low bandwidth. Our school knows it needs to increase its bandwidth, but it's a costly endeavor and are schools willing to invest a large amount of money when they don't have it to begin with?

Joanna Posey's picture
Joanna Posey
Secondary-Special Education Teacher

I work with special education students who have learning disabilities and high functioning autism. After weeks of selling the idea, my school bought several iPad minis as part of a pilot program to determine teaching and learning effectiveness.

I've been pioneering this in my Language Arts class. With the few minis that I had in my classroom, the school's network greatly slowed down. It was determined by our IT guy that we needed a WIFI network just for my classroom. Now, I can have all my students work independently and nothing happens to the school's other networks. It didn't take $$ to make this transition-- just time for the IT guy to develop a new network for my class.

I'm getting great results with the students accepting the technology and apps to help them in writing research papers. I'm glad we are making the transition---one step at a time.

Tony's picture

This is a great post. I think it's important to provide educational materials for parents to keep up with the students' progress in technology. Parents should at least be aware of how their kids are using the internet, tools, software, etc. I think parents can keep up with technology if the schools and teachers provide them the opportunity to engage.


Rachel Glisson's picture

I believe a good balance point for technology integration is this question:
Does this technology add to or bring to life an aspect of reality in a way that cannot be done through any other method? Does it add meaning that could not be seen or experienced any other way? Example: Augmented Reality Apps layer information in real time on top of live images or three dimensional physical structures. Not all of them are useful or even practical for education, but many of them do add depth to our understanding of the universe, anatomy or history. There are some technologies that bring reality into the classroom in ways never before possible and, when combined with interactive surface technologies like touch screens and interactive projectors, allow students to explore rather than just see. So, with that in mind, does it make more sense to spend less on SmartBoards and projectors that really only allow a minimal number of students to interact at once and more on mobile devices that alllow all students to interact, think and explore?

ScholarChip's picture
Administrator online campus operations software

Tablets are not only for learning but can be used for administration purposes. This relieves to teacher to teach and students to learn. A tap of a student ID smart card takes attendance in the classroom plus can perform many other functions.

terry2449's picture
2nd grade teacher in Las Vegas, Nv.

We are just getting tablets into our school. I'm looking forward to using those along with any other technology to teach my students with. I believe in alternative assessment methods. I think that by giving students the chance to use technology their recall methods will improve especially in ELA activities. I currently am a D5/Cafe teacher and am looking for ways to bring more technology into these lessons.

Joanna Posey's picture
Joanna Posey
Secondary-Special Education Teacher

I've just returned from the Learning Disabilities Association of America's Conference in San Antonio. In my session, I presented guidelines for policies and procedures governing clasroom use, along with guidelines to select age appropriate apps with activities as to how I use the apps to support my curricula.

I distributed a 14 page handout on these subjects for attendees to use as examples. Attending my session were representatives from private and charter schools, school districts, teachers, and educational consultants from all areas of the United States and several foreign countries. They were so surprised at my easy, straight forward approach.

The lesson that I learned from this experience is that we are all in the same mode of digital exploration for classroom use. Sharing with each other is the key to success. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to share what I learned with others.

If anyone in our group would like to receive a copy of my handouts, I will email them to you. Just send me an email to: and I will forward these pages to you.

MissRachelGoss's picture
Senior Early Childhood and Special Education Major

I believe that in the current day, having knowledge of technology can set you apart in your instruction. Although I do not think that every classroom needs an iPad cart, most teachers have access to the internet. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Pennsylvania Council for Exceptional Children's Conference. One of the sessions presented a website generated by Bloomsburg College. This website presents some of the best FREE web resources for teachers. Each website comes with a description and has been reviewed and rated by teachers and preservice teachers. Some of the websites are extremely useful. For example, ViewPure allows you to type in the URL to a youtube and will filter the page so that no advertisements or other video links appear. Check out this useful website at Does anyone else have any good online resources?

butterflyfields's picture

your Blog is very nice. after seeing your blog every can how to Bridging the Learning Divide in there life.Thank you.

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