Webb Provides Ideal Testing Ground for iPad's Educational Applications

Way down deep inside, Jim Manikas is living an IT guy's dream.

As technology director at Webb School, it falls upon him to implement Webb's ambitious new iPad program, a mandate that all students in grades 4-12 use Apple's tablet in the classroom. Webb expects to hand out 1,000 iPads (or iPad 2s, if enough of the upcoming version can be found in time) near the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. This gives Manikas and his six-person crew seven months to iron out all the details and turn a simple idea into a fully functioning system—a new way of electronic teaching that hasn't been thoroughly figured out previously by other schools.

On the front end, they'll be loading each iPad with a set of office apps (with others to be finalized as the rollout date approaches) and outfitting each with some basic accessories. Training sessions for teachers and students will be scheduled to ensure that each group can actually use the thing, and Webb's student portal will be upgraded to be more mobile-friendly.

Meanwhile, Manikas and his team will be beefing up Webb's wireless networks, adding 802.11n support campus-wide and throwing in a bevy of education-friendly network functions. In addition to the standard suite of Internet filters (a feature already in place on Webb's current wireless setup), the upgraded network will be able to sort students by MAC address, allowing teachers to allow or block Internet access by class roster.

Come August, Manikas will be expected—by parents and administrators who don't understand the intricacies of his systems—to provide a seamless rollout on a scale rarely achieved in the American classroom. And he'll be attempting to do it using a product that will have been on the market for little more than a year. If the plan succeeds, all credit will go to Apple's magic tablet; if it fails, all blame will fall upon him. What's not to love about the job?

According to Manikas, this is the culmination of a 17-year-long desire to create a one-to-one solution. He's sincere enough about it, but while he lauds the iPad as the perfect combination of form, function, and affordability, an unspoken subtext lurks beneath the surface.

The iPad is ironclad when compared to one of the rare similarly equipped non-Apple devices on the market. It's smart enough when properly configured to handle a tablet's workload while still dumb enough to avoid many problems that would inevitably plague more complex devices.

But even more importantly, the iPad is the first device that has the kind of market penetration to make this a reasonable plan. Tablet-augmented education may rely upon an e-book proto-format that's in the middle of a bloody war of brand ascension, but that concern is too far from the public consciousness to affect the iPad's sellability as an educational tool to the average parent.

Which isn't to say that the idea itself isn't insane. Naysayers in the tech punditry world have responded to Webb's announcement by enumerating the ways in which this idea won't (or doesn't deserve to) work. "It's too soon," they say. "There aren't enough good educational apps. It will distract the kids. The e-book cost difference isn't there." (And of course, "Why do the private school kids get all the best toys?")

If this was happening anywhere else I would stand with them, pointing out all the ways that this idea will surely not go as planned and preparing myself for a heady round of back-patting when something proves us right. But with Webb I'm willing to stay my skepticism—though not for reasons Webb might like. Webb is an enclave, observable by the masses but separate from them for reasons peripheral to the debate here.

In other areas, such separation might provoke cries of elitism. But in this situation, a bit of separation could prove useful. Webb at large may not recognize it (and even if they did, they wouldn't just come out and say it), but the Webb iPad mandate constitutes introducing closed, sterile systems into a larger closed, sterile system. It's the ideal forum for experimentation at this stage, possibly the closest thing we'll see to a control group that larger, more complex educational systems can use for comparison to their own inevitably messier future setups.

Whether that's right or fair or elitist—or whether this experiment will produce the desired results—misses what could be a larger point. This is a near-perfect next step in the evolution of classroom-based technology simply because the elements involved make it such an incremental one. It almost doesn't matter if the whole thing goes sideways as long as we can observe and learn from it. Lament the fate of the dissected frog if you wish, but don't forget why we learn to use the scalpel.