iPads At The Border

on August 4, 2014
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I believe (nearly) every child that comes to America seeking refuge should be welcome. I fully understand if you disagree. It is a complex issue after all. 

We are told tens of thousands of children are showing up at America’s southern border hoping to be allowed permanent entry. The President has requested many billions of dollars to help address this pressing entanglement. The opposition party has similarly offered up many billions, albeit far fewer than the President says are necessary.

What then?

Assuming some, most, or all of these children are allowed permanent entry into the United States, what then?

I have no answer for this. I do have a suggestion, however: I think we should give every single one of these children – every child in America, in fact – a tablet, preferably an iPad.

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What would my proposal cost?

Estimates, which vary wildly, suggest 100,000 children will seek refuge in America this year, and another 100,000 next year. An iPad mini with Retina display retails for $400. Sold in bulk, and for goodwill, Apple may be ready to part with these for $200. Certainly, other tablet vendors would be so willing.

$200 x 200,000 children = $40 million

But let’s not give tablets only to new entrants, but to all children in America, at least those of school age. There are approximately 45 million children, ages 6-17, in the United States. Thus:

45,000,000 x $200 = $9 billion

Yes, that’s a staggering sum. Except, Americans already spend over $650 billion every single year on public K-12 education and another $350 billion every year on  higher education, at minimum. An iPad mini is reasonably future-proof, and likely to last at least three years, for example. Even if we factor my potential tablet spend against only one year of K-12 expenditures, that’s:

$9,000,000,000 / $650,000,000,000 = 0.014

That’s less than 1.5% of one year’s K-12 spend. With this, 45 million children have a tablet — a tablet that can come preloaded with literally thousands of free books; books which reveal America’s history, greatness and failures. Books that teach, warn, inspire.

That’s just the start. There are thousands of free apps that promote creativity and collaboration. We can preload twenty or so on every device. Already, Apple includes iMovie, GarageBand, Pages and Numbers, among others, with every iPad.

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Should the child be fortunate enough to have access to WiFi, YouTube offers amazing resources for self-directed learning. All free. iTunes U similarly offers a wealth of free courses for those with access.

Perhaps Fox will donate the entire Cosmos series toward this effort, helping us to inspire a generation to embrace science, discovery and their innate smartness.

A front facing camera will enable every child to take a picture of themselves and their surroundings, offering a document of their life and their world unmatched in scale.

The Diamond Age

Why do this?

Two reasons:

This is very likely the first and only time in human history where a nation can afford to provide every single child with a fully accessible, easily manipulated tool that contains or can retrieve nearly the entirety of that nation’s history, culture, great works of fiction, film, television, lectures, puzzles and knowledge.

Let’s seize this amazing opportunity!

In his Hugo-winning work, The Diamond Age, author Neal Stephenson posited a future where a young girl, poor, living on the margins, came into possession of a interactive book — what we now call a tablet — that educates and empowers her, leading her to achieve what was once assumed unattainable.

There are only two such ‘books’ in Stephenson’s future world. What a much better world we have now. In fact, in our present day reality, there are already hundreds of millions of such tablets. Even better: almost every one of them can be used, misused, manipulated and managed by nearly any child of any background without any prompting or guidance.

This is profoundly revolutionary.

The System Of The World

The second reason is self-directed learning has many lasting benefits.

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have famously credited Montessori schooling for spurring their entrepreneurial success. Montessori adheres to a self-directed learning model. Children follow their interests and avail themselves to information and knowledge in their own way and on their own time. Per Larry Page:

“I think (founding Google) was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently.”

 Will Wright, video game pioneer and creator of The Sims, stated this of his self-directed Montessori education:

“Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. SimCity comes right out of Montessori.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also attended Montessori school as a child.

Correlation is not causation. What leads a child toward success is no doubt a multi-variant process. But tablets can expose children to untold learning resources, creative opportunities, collaborative play and work. This seems like an opportunity the country should not pass up.

Recently, two villages in Ethiopia were provided with (Motorola Xoom) tablets preloaded with various apps, ebooks, movies, drawing programs and alphabet games. The First Grade children who received the tablets were illiterate, had never used paper and pencil, yet within a few months had taught themselves to read.

“Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android.”

It almost seems unjust to not provide every child with a tablet.

I know there are questions. Who will pay for this? What about theft? What about illicit online activities? Who decides which books to embed? Will the children spend too much time with their tablet

These are all answerable. Yes, really.

The larger question: Will it work? Haven’t laptops, PCs and other technologies in the schools failed to incite a learning revolution?

Perhaps. But at no point before now has there existed reasonably affordable, highly interactive tools that are personal, mobile, configurable, pose almost no barriers to operation, and which can store truly stunning amounts of knowledge and learning resources — all of it accessible with the swipe of a finger.

The children are here. The opportunity exists. Let’s be willing to fail with this.