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Choosing the Right Digital Learning Device

By Robin L. Flanigan — June 10, 2015 6 min read
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Everyone always says it’s not about the device, it’s what you do with it. But the truth is, educators need a good device to accomplish their goals, and there’s no shortage to choose from.

Still, getting to the point of purchase is far from easy.

“We talked about devices on and on and on and on. Everyone has an opinion,” said Edi R. Cox, the executive director of online learning and instructional technology for South Carolina’s 42,000-student Horry County school district, which uses a mix of iPads and tablets with detachable keyboards. That mix was chosen because in a perfect world, Ms. Cox pointed out, a student who has access to multiple devices will be more adaptable—and ultimately more employable—after graduation.

“We decided there’s really no one device that’s right for everything,” she said.

But in the Baltimore County school system, “we literally and firmly believe the exact opposite,” said Ryan Imbriale, the executive director of innovative learning for the Maryland district. The district’s 110,000 students and 8,800 teachers will use the HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G3, a laptop-tablet hybrid, by the 2017-18 school year.

“With a single solution that is both a tablet and a laptop, we are giving students and teachers a choice and we’re also standardizing the device, which assists us with costs, support, and professional learning,” said Mr. Imbriale. “We are not stopping students from being flexible.”

Districts must follow a systematic process of planning, communication, professional development, assessment, evaluation, and leadership support, noted Leslie A. Wilson, the CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit based in Mason, Mich., that supports the effective use of 1-to-1 computing programs. “The ‘spray and pray’ approach gets you nowhere—spray every kid with a device and pray something miraculous happens in the education system for them,” she said. “It’s a process, and the vision upfront is what’s primary.”

Sometimes, that vision needs to narrow in on the smallest details. If districts decide to use laptops, for example, Jami Jacobson of the Albuquerque public schools recommends choosing a durable design with titanium hinges. The executive director for curriculum and instruction at the 88,000-student New Mexico district has put some devices through durability tests: carrying them around in her purse without a case and otherwise treating them indelicately. During one pitch meeting with a tablet-company representative, after noticing the back of the tablet appeared flimsy, she ran her fingernail along its seam and pulled it apart.

“He said, ‘What are you doing?,’ and I said, ‘I’m acting like a five-year-old. If this can’t survive me, it can’t survive a room full of kindergartners,’ ” she recalled. “It doesn’t matter what’s on a device if it doesn’t work.”

Pre-K/Elementary School

Durability is important at this age, as are touchscreen interfaces that work well with smaller fingers. Tablets, including iPads, are a popular tool in K-12 schools for their ability to customize learning, hold attention, and supply apps.

The portability of iPads and other tablets is another plus, whether it’s for project-based learning or individual reading time.

Not that iPads are the right fit for all districts. Some K-12 systems are moving away from iPads and on to Chromebooks. And many elementary schools use Kindles and tablets made by Samsung and Android rather than Apple iPads.

In Illinois’ Barrington Community Unit School District 220, officials will swap HP 3100- and 6400-series netbooks for iPads on a small scale in preK-5 in 2015-16, followed by full implementation in 2016-17, said chief technology officer Matt J. Fuller. Earlier this year, during a pilot, the iPad allowed 1st graders to use a single device for research, to capture nature center field trip photos, and to incorporate them into a written document about the experience.

Tablets can be a good choice across grade levels because “there are millions of apps for children that are developmentally appropriate, and thousands of them are really compelling and engaging,” said Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and an expert on educational technology.

Eighteen percent of Barrington’s 9,000 students are classified as English-language learners, with that population making up more than 90 percent at one elementary school. The iPad offers critical interactive apps that help with reading and nurture a joy for it, noted Mr. Fuller.

Albuquerque contracts with both Microsoft and Apple vendors, but has had the most success with iPads at the elementary level, especially for students who need accommodations or modifications. Accessibility features address vision problems with options to zoom or invert colors. Students not proficient in reading can convert speech to text or listen to voiceovers.

Middle School

Students at this stage start to transition from consuming content to creating it. They multitask more and increasingly use the Internet to research information.

Having devices that help create flexible learning environments is critical, said Susan Jarmuz-Smith, a behavior analyst at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and an educational technology expert. “Our schools engage in academic differentiation, behavioral differentiation, and social-emotional differentiation,” she said. “We must also engage in technological differentiation.”

The 1,450-student Regional School Unit #4 in Wales, Maine, is switching from MacBooks and Windows 7 laptops to Chromebooks in grades 4-6 next school year. The district’s high school has used Chromebooks for two years, and the decision to bring sixth-graders on board came from using extra Chromebooks provided by the high school during instruction and for state assessments. Chromebooks offered immediate access to cloud-based documents and other work; plus, all staff members and students starting in grade 4 operate within the Google ecosystem, which is more compatible with Chromebooks.

Aside from the ability to use Chromebooks to set up offline capabilities, students can easily access email, documents, grades, subscription-based resources, and other “customized educational experiences that would not be possible in an environment that was not infused with individual technology tools,” said Norma-Jean Audet, the district’s technology director. “We will be honoring all the instructional preparatory work teachers have done and will do, but with a faster, more reliable device.”

High School

Learning devices for this age group must be powerful enough to run multiple applications and support software that can run more complex multimedia applications. In the 110,000-student Baltimore County school system, high school students opting out of dissecting a frog for moral or health reasons, for example, can use 3D-animation software programs that simulate the process. Those doing fieldwork could connect probes to their device to collect data, then with a robust Wi-Fi connection collaborate with classmates or students at a school thousands of miles away, said Ryan Imbriale, the executive director of innovative learning for the Baltimore County schools.

Susan Jarmuz-Smith, a behavior analyst at the University of Southern Maine, in Portland, and an expert on educational technology, said high school students ideally need a range of proficiency in non-keyboard input devices and keyboard-input devices to teach word processing, data analysis, presentation software skills, and business-based social-media use. All those skills are essential for basic technical problem-solving and critical thinking in the digital age.

Illinois’ Barrington High School uses the 11-inch Macbook Air, which supports the software-development platform Swift, used by at least one-third of the school’s students learning to develop iPhone apps in elective coding classes.

The 42,000-student Horry County, S.C., district uses Dell Venue 11 Pro 5000 series tablets (noted for combining the portability of a tablet with the power of a laptop) with detachable keyboards not only to educate and fill instructional gaps but also to add enrichment opportunities in different content areas.


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