A school division in Winnipeg is becoming one of the first in Canada to issue iPads to every junior high school student, with educators saying the tablets are a great tool to help stoke interest in learning. But not everyone likes the idea, and worry the technology could distract and turn off the student brain.

This September, every St. James-Assiniboia School Division student in Grades 6, 7 and 8, as well as their teachers, will receive an iPad. That's about 3,000 tablets, all bought by the school division, that will be leased to students at a cost of $100 a year. 

Kids in younger grades will also work collectively on seven or eight iPads in each classroom, and high school students will be encouraged to bring their own devices in from home.

Tanis Pshebniski, the assistant superintendent of the school division, says the tablets will be incorporated into the curriculum.

"We are going to be focusing on writing, focusing on numeracy," she says.

Ron Weston, the chief superintendent of the school division, says the whole realm of education is changing and most students are using computers and smartphones to get information anyway. This is the just the next step in the evolution.

He says the beauty of Web-based learning is that teachers and students can work together to develop questions and find the answers, instead of teachers holding all the information and lecturing.

"I think it's an exciting time to be in education. There's a real shift here, and this is going to be an exciting initiative," he says.

For teens today, tablet technology is already part of their world. Educators at St. James believe by moving it into the classroom, more students will be excited about learning.

"There's almost no turning back," says Pshebniski. "Once we put this technology in their hands, this is going to be part of where we need to continually move forward."

Other schools in Canada are also moving in this direction. In Toronto and other cities, some schools are encouraging students to bring their own devices to class.

"I think this is the way in which a lot of school divisions will eventually move, once they understand that they can leverage the IT dollars that they're already spending and not have to spend a whole lot more to get this kind of distribution," says Weston.

The technology is so ingrained that at teacher's colleges, future teachers are being taught how to teach with tablets, smartphones and laptops. Dennis Hlynka of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Education says that, at one time, teachers were being taught how to use films or overhead projectors in the classroom. Then it was PowerPoint presentations, and now, it's tablets.

"Things are happening very fast, things are changing overnight. Who knows where we are going to go next?" he says.

At the end of the day, says Hlynka, the medium used to transmit the lesson isn't as important as the lesson itself.

Multitasking distracting

But as educators work to incorporate technology in the classroom, new research suggests it might actually impede learning. The problem, they say, is that many students use computers to surf the Web during class time and fail to really learn what's being taught.

A Canadian study recently published in the journal Computers & Education, asked university students to use laptops to take notes during lectures and also complete several other tasks at the same time. The students scored 11 per cent worse on tests measuring how much of the lecture they actually retained compared to those who simply took notes.

What's more, the same study found that even students who used pen and paper to take notes in class absorbed 17 per cent less information if they were sitting next to laptop users.

McMaster University researcher Faria Sana, who co-authored the study, says the problem is that many students mistakenly believe they can pay attention to two or three things at once.

"They think they're immune to (the problems of) multitasking because it's something they do all the times. But it is a huge concern because (laptops) provides students with the opportunity to do other things and they are tempted to do them," she says.

The one advantage of tablets over laptops though, says Sana, is that they allow only one program to be open on screen at once. And with more teacher interaction in schools than in universities, the hope is that there will be less opportunity to stray.

In Winnipeg, Weston says proper computer etiquette will be part of the introduction of the tablets. He thinks such lessons are badly needed, since most students are on the Web and current school curriculum doesn't teach students about how to use social media and the Internet safely.

It's not a foolproof plan, but in Winnipeg and elsewhere, it seems there's no turning back from the future of learning.

With a report from CTV's Jill Macyshon