Editorial: Redmond takes smart approach to digital devices

Published May 23, 2014 at 12:01AM

Redmond schools Superintendent Mike McIntosh says his district will “ultimately shift to a digital curriculum,” but his “approach is to move slowly and learn from some of the mistakes made by other districts.”

It’s an approach that makes sense given how little is known about the best ways to introduce digital education, and the huge expense and disruption involved.

The Redmond pilot program, called Camp Nine, will involve 100 capable students who aren’t focused on school and aren’t reaching their potential. Funded by a $187,500 grant from the Oregon Department of Education, the program will give the students iPads during a summer program full of field trips and efforts to create relationships with teachers. The help will continue into their freshman year, with early tours and supports throughout the year.

Many school districts are experimenting with digital conversions, in which every student gets a digital device such as an iPad. Advocates stress that the change is not about technology, but about a different way to engage students. They say successful conversions involve changing the way teachers teach and giving students the chance to learn in more individual ways at their own pace.

In the neighboring school district of Bend-LaPine, the pace is much faster than in Redmond. Bend-La Pine handed iPads to thousands of students in eight schools this year, and expects to deliver them to all students in grades three-12 by the end of a three-year transition. Although the first year was called a pilot, the expansion is surging ahead long before we know if it is helping students make academic progress. The district is using funds that would have been spent on textbooks and other instructional materials, meaning a turnback is increasingly unthinkable.

There’s little doubt that extensive use of digital devices belongs in our schools. There’s equally little doubt that we have much to learn about their limitations.

Earlier this month, the respected publication Education Week reported on research showing that student reading comprehension is suffering under the flood of digital devices. It appears that multimedia elements and interactive features can be distractions, preventing students from using well-known methods for deeper comprehension. Students are inclined to skim when reading digitally, the studies indicated, and they remember fewer details.

It will take time and experimentation to determine where digital devices help and where they hinder education. Better to take it slow, with focused pilots, rather than to plunge so deep that re-adjustments will be hard to make.