STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's hear more now about the integration of tablet computers into the classroom. In recent weeks on MORNING EDITION, we heard about the Los Angeles School District. It's beginning a process of issuing iPads to every student, and LA quickly discovered it had inadequate systems in place to limit students surfing on the Internet.
LA is trying to keep some control over what students do; another district in California is taking a more open approach. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Parents pack into a gym at Cahuilla Desert Academy, a middle school in the Southern California city of Thermal. It's iPad information night. People are relieved the near-triple-digit daytime heat of the Coachella Valley, southeast of Palm Springs, has given way to a cool evening. Before addressing the crowd, Principal Encarnacion Becerra talks up the district's ambitious, new iPads-for-all initiative with the fervor of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
ENCARNACION BECERRA: It's truly a revolution, what's happening. Technology has finally caught up to where truly, you hold the Internet in the palm of your hands. The power of a mobile device...
WESTERVELT: Coachella Valley Unified, a predominantly low-income, rural and Latino school district, is in the process of handing out iPads to every student, pre-K through 12th grade. Kids seventh grade and up get to take the devices home - evening, weekends and breaks. Voters approved a bond backed by property taxes to pay for it. Administrators here paint it as a modern civil rights issue. Technology tools, they argue, will help boost achievement, prepare kids for today's workplace, and narrow the digital divide between poor and wealthy areas.
Sitting in a plastic chair, parent Joey Acuna Jr. worries about a different digital divide - the one between teachers and students, when it comes to online security. Last month, students at Los Angeles Unified School District easily got around a security firewall on their district-issued iPad,s and could surf wherever they wanted. LA has now slowed down its iPad rollout.
JOEY ACUNA JR.: You know, I have concerns after hearing, you know, what happened in LA Unified. You know, kids are kids, and they're going to try to do what they think they can get away with. You know, and not to be mean but sadly, I think a lot of - some of our kids probably have better knowledge of these kind of electronic devices than some of our teachers.
WESTERVELT: LA is now exploring new security tools to block access to certain sites, including social media and YouTube. Parents here in Coachella want to know whether the district has learned from LA's missteps. And for some parents and guardians, what sites to block and how to navigate social media with their kids, is unchartered and scary territory. Tenth-grader Eli Servin lives with his grandmother, Delia Patino, a retired secretary. They're sitting together in the living room of their modest ranch home in Thermal. Delia tells her grandson she's worried about Facebook. Now, she's never used the social media site, but she says she hears things in church, and on TV, about personal postings coming back to haunt.
DELIA PATINO: I don't want to know that you're putting any information that shouldn't be on the Facebook about the family, about the household - anything like that, or about yourself because your reputation is very important in life. It's going to follow you all through life, you know. So anything you put, it's going to hurt you in the future. You know, because we never did that in our times and nowadays, it seems to have a lot of - get a lot of people in trouble, over the Facebook.
WESTERVELT: Eli, looking slightly nervous, tries to reassure his grandmother that most of his postings are pretty harmless and trivial.
ELI SERVINE: So, like, what I just put is just like, had a good day with my friends today - like, right after fifth period; mostly, like, the little things that happen in life.
WESTERVELT: The Coachella Valley school district will block certain sites deemed harmful, and install a tracking mechanism and other tools to monitor kids' use. Part of that is federal law. Under the Children's Internet Protection Act, schools and libraries that accept certain federal funding for technology must install Web filters, to shield kids from pornography and explicit content online. But the district is taking a more nuanced approach to access and use of social media. They're not blocked. The idea, now, is to educate kids and parents about appropriate use of the iPad, or what the district calls online ethics and digital citizenship.
TIM SHARPE: Teachers are just going to need to learn to get out more.
WESTERVELT: Eighth grade physical science teacher Tim Sharpe, at Cahuilla Desert Academy, has been using the iPad in a pilot project for more than a year. He says the tablets are tailor-made for science learning. He has kids use them for photos, to write up labs, and tap into the Ed Tech science apps - and more. Sharpe says he's already confronted the problem of renegade surfing on mobile phones.
SHARPE: They can get on YouTube any time they want, in school. They have smartphones. I took my phone out of my pocket, and I showed my students the other day. And I said, you know that any of you can get on this anytime you want. Why don't you? Well, because we'll get our phone taken away. Where's the rules?
WESTERVELT: And Sharpe says what sites to block - beyond the legally required ones - should be a teacher-student classroom-management issue. Sharpe has devised a system that engages kids, and rewards them. If you get your iPad project done on time, you can act like a middle-schooler and then take a zillion pictures of yourself - the ubiquitous "selfie."
SHARPE: And there's a, you know, a point system where if you don't get what you're supposed to get, then no selfies - or anything like that. So you just lay the rules down. And I find that the kids go with that.
WESTERVELT: Maybe this kind of approach to Web access works best: Have teachers, parents and students work together to form a realistic, flexible plan - one that might involve incentives but that also confronts the reality that students are going to use social media, and play games on their mobile devices and computers. One ed tech expert said her bottom line: There is no technical fix. Engaged teachers and parents count most, when it comes to keeping kids safe at home and at school.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.