A Winnipeg school division will soon be handing out iPads to about 3,200 of its students, as it aims to make the tablet computers a necessary classroom tool.

Next week, the St. James-Assiniboia School Division will be supplying iPad minis, free of charge, to approximately 1,800 middle-school students for the academic year.

Another 1,400 of the Apple tablets will be shared in the division's elementary school classes.

School administrators say the iPads will help modernize learning and complement pencils, paper and printed classroom materials.

"It's a very connected generation that we have, and this motivates them and it engages them in a different way than a textbook does," Ron Weston, the division's chief superintendent, told CBC News on Thursday.

"We can also connect with other people across Skype, or we can connect through a website, and it just really does bring the world right into the classroom," he added.

Possible distraction?

When school division officials spoke to parents in May about introducing tablets in the classroom, some raised concerns that iPads would distract students.

A recent Canadian study found that using laptops during university lectures could be distracting students and hurting their grades.

"If what you are doing is related to the teacher's lesson, to the unit that you're studying, I don't think that's a bad thing," said York University researcher Tina Weston, who co-authored the study.

"But if you are flipping screens, where one screen is totally unrelated to what you're supposed to be doing, this is going to hurt learning."

Tanis Pshebniski, St. James-Assiniboia's assistant superintendent of program and curriculum, said teachers will talk with students to ensure the iPads are being used in the classroom properly.

"We're fairly confident that our staff are going to be able to work with our students to make sure that their time on task is related specifically to what's happening in school, it's related specifically to their instruction," she said.

Smartphones and other gadgets are already part of most children's realities, so using tablets at school is a natural next step, Pshebniski said.

"We know that students nowadays, they are in a situation where they are needing to be engaged. And if they're not engaged, then that becomes a distraction," she said.

Weston, who noted that computers have already been a fixture in classrooms for two decades now, had some advice for parents concerned about their children's screen time.

"You are the parent and you have control over that, so make sure that you encourage your child to be involved in lots of activities, not just the single-minded activity of technology," he said.

Next year, the school division will allow high school students to bring their own devices to class.