Districts Using iPads Come to ISTE Searching for Ideas, and Help

By Sean Cavanagh — June 30, 2014 3 min read
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IPads have a major presence in the nation’s schools, but don’t think that means educators are uniformly confident or competent users of them.

Not judging by the standards of one session held here Monday at ISTE 2014. The session focused on the biggest mistakes schools make with iPads—and how to correct those mistakes—and it drew an overflowing roomful of educators, administrators, technology officers, and other attendees who came in search of advice.

The session’s presenter, Thomas Daccord, works for EdTech Teacher, a Dorchester, Mass.-based company that tries to help educators use technology to improve instruction. Districts across the country, including some of the nation’s biggest, have jumped on the iPad bandwagon. Daccord said he and his team have visited scores of school systems using the tablets sold by Apple, and they find that many of those efforts have run into problems, including having drawn ambivalent or deeply skeptical reactions from parents, teachers, and others.

Daccord described a series of mistakes many districts consistently make in trying to put iPads to use in their schools. One of them is pretty fundamental, he said: They fail to give a compelling answer to the question, “Why iPads?”

“Vision, vision, vision is probably the most crucial element to success in any iPad program,” Daccord told the audience, which filled every seat and several chairs brought in from outside the room.

A link to his full presentation can be found here.

One of the answers to the “why iPads?” question, Daccord said, is the potential for the tools to engage students with different interests and ability levels through video, presentation features, animation, and other capabilities.

Too many teachers and administrators are inclined to treat the devices as they would any computer, without recognizing the potential of the iPad’s various tools to unleash student creativity—even if that means teachers end up sacrificing some control over their lessons.

“Educators shouldn’t think of iPads as repositories of apps,” Daccord said, “but rather as portable media-creation devices.”

At the same time, rather than having students load up their iPads with just any app, he said, teachers should recognize that a limited number of multipurpose apps—Daccord offered the audience some recommendations—can do the job.

Another reason iPad rollouts often fail in districts: Teachers don’t buy in. Too many districts put tech-wizard teachers in charge of explaining the devices to their colleagues, Daccord said, and as a result, their more recalcitrant or ambivalent peers quickly lose interest.

Districts need to allow teachers to experiment, and fail, and have the least tech-savvy among them share their experiences, he said. Early-adopting teachers are probably going to begin using iPads with ease, and obstructionists are going to resist, no matter what.

But district leaders can win over the independents—the “healthy skeptics"—if they don’t overwhelm them, Daccord said.

“That group in the middle is the key,” he said. “If that groups swings to the obstructionists, you’ve got a problem.”

Daccord’s message resonated with Micah Smith, a school board member in the 9,200-student Greater Albany district in Oregon.

Many of the district officials in the room told Daccord their schools had launched ambitious rollouts of computing devices, but Smith’s district was not one of them. Smith said he’s wary of having the district foist a large-scale, uniform tech strategy on its teachers and students. He’s seen other devices, like smartboards, get deployed across classrooms, “and they hang on the wall,” he said.

His district’s alternative approach is to invite teachers to pitch tech strategies for their individual classes, then the district finds grant money to carry out those tailored plans.

“For me, it’s interesting that people are so infatuated with 1-to-1 [computing], but no one wants to talk about the downside to it,” Smith said. The size of the crowd that turned out for Daccord’s session, he said, was a sign that many districts are searching for answers, even if they’re not eager to broadcast it.

If his district does end up making a major iPad purchase, Smith said, “we’ll have the vision-and-goal part answered, rather than just saying, ‘Oh, the district next door is doing it; let’s do it, too.’ ”

Follow @EdWeekSCavanagh and @BenjaminBHerold and for live updates from ISTE 2014.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.