Oct 28, 2014 · 4 minutes

Students need iPads like dehydrated people need seawater: it might seem like a good idea, but the devices are likely to create more problems than they solve. But that's not going to stop Apple from giving away more than $100 million worth of its products to students in 29 states in an effort to "make a difference for students and communities" as part of President Obama's ConnectED Initiative.

The idea is that tablets, laptops, and other products can help improve classrooms in low-income neighborhoods. Apple claims that many of the students who will receive iPads via this program are eligible for free or reduced-price meals from their schools, a sign of low-income status. With more access to hardware products and digital tools, it believes those students will be better off.

There are a few problems with that idea, however. The easiest among them to address would be giving the students access to laptops instead of tablets, as 13-year-old Aidan Chandra wrote for Pando in September, because they're better suited to the type of work students need to do all day. (My own brother, a 16-year-old, said something similar after tablets were distributed at his school.)

Students have also found it remarkably easy to tamper with tablets and use them to play games, watch videos, and perform other non-educational functions. Combine that with the outrageous costs associated with many one-to-one programs, which don't apply here but have soured the public's perception of these "giveaways," and it becomes clear that tablets aren't a magic bullet.

Here's the thing: even if these programs worked without a hitch and gave students great, purpose-built devices that made it easier for them to do their school work, they would still be worse off than more privileged counterparts because of all the non-tech-related obstacles in their way.

The Wall Street Journal explored this issue earlier this month when it dubbed the SATs, which are used as the benchmark for college entry, the "Student Affluence Test" after studies showed that students whose parents earn more than $200,000 per year score about 400 points higher than those whose parents earn less than $20,000 per year. As the Journal explains in its report:

[I]f the phenomenon arises from a confluence of factors, that makes it all the harder to remove income gaps from standardized tests. Family wealth allows parents to locate in neighborhoods with better schools (or spring for private schools). Parents who are themselves college educated tend to make more money, and since today’s high school seniors were born in the mid-1990s, many of the wealthiest and best-educated parents themselves came of age when the tests were of crucial importance. When the SAT is crucial to college, college is crucial to income, and income is crucial to SAT scores, a mutually reinforcing cycle develops.
It seems unlikely that a few tablets will bridge that gap. Poor students face so many other problems that have nothing to do with the availability of technology in the classroom that these devices might create a small difference, but won't be enough to change the trajectory that many of these students are already on. As the St. Louis-Dispatch reported last May:

'Hunger. Exhaustion,' [school counselor Brad Busby] said, ticking off the circumstances that confront pupils daily at Glasgow Elementary School. First-graders with post-traumatic stress disorder. Children whose families have faced multiple evictions. “Sometimes the parents aren’t there at night,” he continued. 'I did a home visit last month. There were 19 people in that house.'

They are the trappings of poverty. And where poverty is found, so too, is academic struggle.

The Washington Post and the New York Times have also explored how these problems chase poor students all the way through college. Many low-income students never end up enrolling in higher education; many others never graduate even after they've enrolled. The problem? They're too busy working, taking care of their families, or just trying to survive to continue their education.

Companies participating in the ConnectED Initiative have pledged more than $2 billion worth of products, services, and other donations. Much of that figure takes the form of free access to those products -- one company promised to give $1 billion in free access to its data-mapping software -- while others incur actual costs by giving away hardware or more costly services.

While it might be heartening to see so many companies pledging to help poor students, it's also a waste for all of those funds to take the form of free access to tech products. These kids don't need tablets, they need food. Teachers don't need SmartBoards, they need smaller class sizes.

Technology might help solve the problems these students face, but it's hard to get excited about students receiving iPads they don't want or need when so many of them are hungry, exhausted, and living in conditions that make learning much more difficult than it would otherwise be. Let's not confuse this public relations stunt -- which might also convince young people to use products that they otherwise wouldn't have -- with meaningful reform for these poor students.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]