Is it a pilot or phase one?

Both terms are used when Bend-La Pine Schools staff talks about handing iPads to approximately 2,400 students in the next school year.

The language is important as a reflection of the staff’s mindset as it launches this major initiative. This needs to be a true pilot, with careful examination of the results before decisions are made about further expansion.

The district announced Tuesday that five schools have been selected to make the digital conversion in 2013-14, giving iPads to students in grades 3-12. If it goes well, the district will consider expanding to all its schools the following year, replacing textbooks with digital devices for students in those grades.

Administrators have calculated that a districtwide project would be revenue neutral, because money otherwise spent on textbooks and related costs would pay for the digital devices and educational materials.

Experimentation with digital devices is widespread in the nation’s schools, but full digital conversion is still rare. Unanswered questions about costs and effectiveness abound.

Still, some benefits are obvious and exciting. We’re particularly impressed with the potential gains for disadvantaged students who don’t have modern digital opportunities at home and therefore are not learning skills essential to their success. The chance for instruction targeted to individual students’ capability is another important potential benefit.

It’s unknown, however, if digital education will actually improve learning, or whether the financial costs are fully anticipated.

Schools also need to be wary of corporate influence of those selling the digital devices — and be sure they are armed with independent advisers.

Bend-La Pine made a smart move earlier this year in scaling back the first year’s effort so the number of iPads purchased wouldn’t exceed the number needed anyway for new testing procedures in spring 2015. The district also is working on an evaluation system designed to help determine the success of the first year.

That’s good but will be insufficient if decision-makers have already made up their minds and are thinking of this as phase one, instead of as a pilot that needs to prove itself.