iPads At The Border

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.


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.


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.

Published by

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.

1,173 thoughts on “iPads At The Border”

  1. The aspect of what you are suggesting is that of creating a higher level of opportunity to have a contributing future. This is intriguing, and it can be easily determined (seems that some of that is happening) if it generally works. You are right the investments we make in education are enormous (I am Canadian, and our efforts parallel yours in the US), so if we can make these more effective it is well worth it.

    Personally, the status quo is not good enough. Many “silver bullet” type solutions have been tried over the years with varying successes. So maybe using a technological base such as you suggest to build upon (my most important qualifying statement here) is worthwhile.

    Look forward to others’ comments.


  2. Best most positive article I have ever reed by you, congratulations, keep it up. And not only that… I agree with it!

  3. iPads for all students? You’re thinking of Denmark. But seriously, it’s a good idea. We homeschool here in Canada, and my four kids use iPad 2s (with ZAGG keyboard cases). Works great. We haven’t needed much ‘analog’ curriculum since we got the iPads in 2011. And the kids can create/learn so much using the iPads: music, short films, writing, art and illustration, math, interactive books, basic apps, HTML, programming, the list goes on and on and on. Anyone who says the iPad is mostly for consumption is a fool. It boggles the mind what a million kids with a million iPads could create.

    1. My experience differs from yours. Watching my two nieces, two nephews and my own kids with the iPad and iPhone, I see very LITTLE creating and very MUCH consuming. Odd for my kids given the example of a Dad who’s a coder and a photographer.

      1. It wouldn’t surprise me if that changed over time and your kids began creating quite a lot. My kids were 10 and up when we got the iPads, now all teenagers.

        1. It’s been four years since the iPad 1 was released. My son was 11 at the time. My daughter was 8. Yes, they are now both teenagers. The device can be used for creating but it isn’t any better at making human beings more creative than any other computing device I’ve seen in my 35 years of computing experience.

          1. I disagree, it’s a more engaging, more accessible, more mobile device. If computing devices help with creativity, then the iPad (in some ways but not all ways) helps more. The iPad is an easily available accessory to the act of creating. I’m thinking along the lines of the iPhone being a great camera, not because it has the best lens, but because it is the camera you have with you. In the same way the iPad is the creative device you have with you, much more so than any desktop or laptop.

          2. Certainly our experiences differ, that is obvious. But I do think that if we agree that computing devices can help with creativity/education then a computing device that is more accessible and more easily available (at hand) must naturally increase this utility. No?

      2. As someone who works in the creative industry, it has been my sad observation that for some reason consuming is a default setting in humans. Creating has to be actively encouraged. I don’t know if this is a societal/cultural thing or innate.


      3. Hey, I just stumbled across Osmo, an accessory for the iPad. Looks great for younger kids. Just google Play Osmo.

  4. Open Borders!
    Let everyone in who follows the same rules that my ancestors did when they got off the boat.

    1. Steal from the Indians?

      Seriously, which set of laws? It depends when your ancestors arrived; they have varied greatly over history.

      And yes, some of my ancestors were first arrivals, so they had to interact with the the natives who lived here before them.

  5. Spot on. I worked in educational publishing for thirty years, in a nonprofit that sold high school textbooks for less than ten bucks. And still paid its way. Like musicos, telcos, cablecos, textcos have been gouging the public for generations. Thirty buck books revised every other year?Semi criminal.

    1. Many studies have already been done on the iPad in education settings. A bit of googling is all you need to do. Here’s a quote from one study: “significant gains in quality and standard of pupil work and progress and potential for extending use even further”.

      I have yet to see a study involving the iPad in education where the outcome was negative. The iPad is also quite different from a traditional PC laptop, where the PC may fail the iPad seems to succeed, at least in education.

        1. Yes, just giving iPads to kids might even be better. I realize that sounds crazy, but all my kids have been homeschooled from day one, kids do pretty well teaching themselves if you let them. I am continually amazed by what my kids are learning on their iPads, on their own. We’re kind of a three year case study I suppose, we started using the iPads in 2011. But I’ve been homeschooling and researching education methods and outcomes for 16 years now, and my wife’s university degree is Education (mine is English and Philosophy). I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about how kids learn and what tools work best.

          Something else occurs to me, there’s enough negative aspects of the formal school system, I would bet the full positive impact of the iPad is being blunted somewhat in that setting.

          1. That particular concept is often called ‘unschooling’, and it can seem really wacky, but it actually works. Sure you get periods of time where the kid does nothing, but unschooling is surprisingly effective.

  6. I wonder, if Apple wouldn’t do it… would Chromebooks work instead and achieve the same thing? I’ve got both an iPad and a Chromebook, and personally when I need to type something that’s more long-winded, I find myself switching devices. I play with my iPad, and consume things, and sometimes I create things. With my Chromebook, I do things that are a pain to do with my iPad. One problem with creating a program like this is that it’s like a forced monopoly for a single company to be allowed to be placed in the hands of children everywhere, when there are other tablet makers out there, and other device makers out there. I know that we consider Apple to be the gold standard in tablets, but it would likely be the knock-out punch to all tablets but the iPad. I like devices for education, and find it as a beneficial tool, but it is one of many.

    Last I heard, the iPad for every student in L.A. project was way over-budget and didn’t work. Apple would have to be lenient on pricing, and they weren’t (even on that program).

    1. I focused on iPads because I’ve watched everyone from toddlers to grandparents use them instantly, without guidance. I think that is borderline revolutionary.

      1. True.. I’ve seen that myself. I also have a grandparent that just broke her iPad, and one that thought you had to pay for Facebook. 🙂 They may be in the minority, though.

    2. From what I’ve read that L.A. project was doomed from the start, implemented poorly, and there was a strong bias towards Windows solutions to begin with. There are quite a few projects being done well that have very positive results. It’ll be interesting to see what happens long term in Denmark.

      Brian is correct, the touch UI and ease of use is revolutionary. If you need a keyboard for lots of typing, then simply add one to the iPad, there are many options available.

      You make an interesting point about a forced monopoly. Due to the generally shoddy nature of Android tablets (security, privacy, apps, build quality) the iPad is becoming the default in education and in the enterprise. It may end up being a kind of monopoly anyway, or at least very dominant.

      Now, Microsoft may have an opportunity here with a Surface model aimed at education, since many school districts lean towards Windows, at least IT departments tend to.

      1. I actually have one of the keyboards you’re talking about for the iPad. The problem with that is, and this would count against the Surface as well (incidentally I have that with a keyboard as well .. I do a lot of software testing on multiple devices): it adds to the cost. Whereas a Chromebook (and recently announced $200 Windows laptops) would have the keyboards in place. We’re talking anywhere from $50-100 / student. This would multiply the amount of spend by 25-50% if all children were also given keyboards.

        That said, I agree with everything else you said here.

        1. We might be getting a Chromebook, they look interesting. I’m not sure cost should be a consideration, since iPads (even with keyboards), or Surfaces, or whatever, should immediately provide cost savings in excess of the total cost of the devices. ‘Analog’ curriculum is very expensive. An iPad that lasts just three years would be much cheaper.

    3. While using only iPads to achieve this goal could/may create “forced monopoly for a single company (Apple) to be allowed to be placed in the hands of children everywhere” wouldn’t using Chomebooks also create “a forced monopoly for a single company (Google) to be allowed to be placed in the hands of children everywhere”?

      1. I was actually thinking of a mix. Not just one or the other. There are $200 Chromebooks, $200 Windows Laptops and if Apple agreed to such a program, $200 iPads. I am not sure about the logistics of picking who gets what, but I’d say that would come down to the schools and the software or educational material that they have licensing to use in their classrooms.

        1. I remember in the early days of tech before even PCs became all that common and a lot of teaching aids were handled by AV equipment, there was a company (I can’t even remember who) who wanted to supply a school with a complete interconnected AV system with TVs in every classroom. In exchange all they wanted was to advertise. I don’t even remember it being all that much—maybe one commercial at the beginning of a presentation? There was such an outcry from the communities, I don’t think the experiment ever went past a one or two pilot programs. No one wanted their kids to be the hostage target of ads as part of the education system.

          Now we have schools willing to pay for hardware to put advertising, and worse still, marketing data collection, in their schools. I’ve said this more than once here, my how things have changed.


    4. The Gov (NSA) may actually prefer the distribution of chromebooks?

      Any parent that knows how Google and Internet tracking works (very few) would object to this type of program.

      Google admitted in a California court that they were “unintentionally” collecting data on students using Google Apps for Education. Creating data profiles on our children.

      Do we want to subsidize our children’s computing hardware via data collection? I don’t.

      1. Do you think Apple isn’t also collecting data on students? The questions are: what is the data being collected? What could someone do with the data to cause harm? Could the data be used to improve education?

  7. Your first paragraph would resonate more if you announced that you have applied to adopt or at least become a foster parent for two of these kids.

    Beyond that, I buy my nephew an iPad every two years. He currently has an iPad Air. He uses it primarily to watch people play Nintendo games on YouTube, not read. Until Apple offers more granular controls, an iPad for every kid won’t necessarily result in more reading. It might result in less.

    On the bright side, my nephew loves Keynote, Garage Band, and iMovie so he’s getting a self education in visually presenting information. But not reading.

    1. Fair point. I say…let them in…but have no intentions of becoming a foster parent. I think my plan will work great in the aggregate but realize some children won’t take to the device. It’s not a cure-all.

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  9. Love this. Do like an ambitious plan. For it to really work we’d also need to factor in providing Internet access too.

    Could something like the Facebook sponsored district-wide wifi be scaled to an entire country? (http://on.mash.to/1qexw5B).

    Or some kind of deal with the cable companies to get connectivity into every home?

    Or, schools could become ISPs?

    That’d be a Really bold plan.. No idea how to do the maths on that though.

  10. Decent human beings protect children who are in danger or in need. Period. No need for politics. No need for argument. I would applaud you for the humanity in your proposal, except nobody should be applauded for simply being decent. We should all be that way. Still, it was good to hear you make the case.

    But you get points for the Neal Stephenson references.

  11. sorry but no. They don’t need tablets, they need shelter, food etc. Show how giving them an iPad is going to solve those issues

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