The Virginia Department of Education is phasing in the second wave of a pilot program that uses Apple’s iPad tablet computers as the centerpiece of a social studies curriculum that blends online and face-to-face learning.
The Chicago school system is expanding a pilot program that last fall awarded a classroom set of 32 of the devices to 23 schools in the 409,000-student district.
And Irving, Texas, school officials are exploring weaving the iPad or another tablet-computing device into their district’s 1-to-1 high school computing program.
Every day seems to offer another story about a district or school that’s buying iPads—a development that astonishes some ed-tech experts since the device is less than 15 months old, and K-12 educators are traditionally slow adopters of new technology. And they’ve adopted it for classroom use despite the fact that Apple is still revising its product, with the second version of perhaps several issued in March, while many other manufacturers had only released their tablet competitors at the beginning of this year. Further, Apple products are not compatible with Adobe Flash Player.
Excluding the fad factor, experts say there are legitimate reasons for educational interest. With a battery life of eight to 10 hours and a weight of just over a pound, the iPad offers more portability and less startup time during the full school day than laptops or netbooks, while its screen size facilitates more flexibility using the Web and easier input than smartphones.
The iPad “beat every specification schools thought was important,” Thomas Greaves, the chairman of the Greaves Group, an education consulting firm based in Encinitas, Calif., says of the device, which now retails for about $400 in its first version—similar to the cost of a netbook.
But such rapid adoption of a device with such a short history means that figuring out the best educational use can involve a lot of trial and error. That reality has some educators wondering whether the investment is wise.
“I sometimes question if everything has really been thought through,” says Rob Residori, a literacy and technology coordinator with Chicago’s Striving Readers project. Three of the schools participating in that soon to be defunded federal reading program obtained one of the city’s 23 classroom iPad grants last fall, with several more winning money to use this spring, Residori says.
“Is this the best use of our funds, or is it simply a tool to engage and motivate our students?” he asks. “Of course, technology has that capability, but is that always the best angle?”
The Virginia Experiment
Through a pilot program that is part of the Virginia education department’s broader “Beyond Textbooks” initiative, Tammy McGraw, the state’s director of educational technology, is hoping to find the answer to Residori’s question.
In September, Virginia announced the purchase of 350 iPads for 4th, 7th, and 9th graders in four counties to test the use of the device as a 1-to-1 computing tool in social studies classrooms. The 7th and 9th grade classes used gaming and assessment applications created by Pearson to supplement the publisher’s American and world history textbooks and an e-text feature that let students read those books from their devices. The 4th graders used an app version of a portion of Five Ponds Press’ Our Virginia textbook that focused on the colonial settlement of Jamestown, Va.
The same textbook was the focus of a flap last fall about erroneous statements in a later chapter that said thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The controversy occurred after the publishers involved in the iPad pilot were decided.
Is this the best use of our funds, or is it simply a tool to engage and motivate our students? Of course, technology has that capability, but is that always the best angle? ”
After implementing the pilot during the second quarter of the school year, the state in April was “still working on final reports,” McGraw says, but adds that most teachers and students supported continuing the pilot. Pearson officials say their material would be more refined a second time around after learning their own lessons about designing content.
“The nice thing on the iPad is you have more real estate to present content, visuals, and to physically navigate,” says Jim Doris, Pearson’s director of emerging markets for the humanities. “But that can lead you to want to overload the presentation.”
Teachers in the pilot also reported having to learn on the fly. At Drew Model School in the 21,000-student Arlington, Va., district, Joshua Henry says Five Ponds’ content for the iPad was too advanced for his 4th grade science and social studies class. So Henry says he spent much of the quarter creating PowerPoint slide presentations and other content based on the structure of the unit, but that was easier for students to digest.
“The community we have here, you have reading levels that are very low,” Henry says of his school, where just over half the 550 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 28 percent are English-language learners.
“So the Jamestown content that was on it was a little rich. … For this to work, really, next year, you need to have a team—one or two or three teachers—who will just sit down and go through this and put stuff on there that’s going to matter,” he says. “Trying to do it during the school year is just crazy.”
With 4th and 5th graders switching classes for core subjects, the iPads travel as well.
English teacher Erin Upton tries to personalize reading assignments based on proficiency, and uses a feature of the iPad to help highlight key vocabulary words for students.
Math teacher Amreen Alvi has found some apps to help students understand fractions and decimals, and also has the students open worksheets off the Blackboard Inc. classroom-management site and complete them with a stylus pen during a classroom exercise.
But “it’s definitely a work in progress,” she says.
‘Frustrating at First’
The question may be whether the iPad is best suited as a 1-to-1 device or to be shared as part of a stable of digital classroom tools.
For example, on the other side of Arlington, Jamestown Elementary School’s instructional technology coordinator, Camilla Gagliolo, has stashed the nearly 60 iPads at her school in technology cabinets across classrooms in the 550-student K-5 school. About a half-dozen sit in each cabinet, next to a similar number of netbook computers and iPod touch media players.
During English in Heather Blake’s 2nd grade class, students can choose which device to use for an ongoing book-publishing project. During math in Bill Donovan’s 4th grade class, students rotate between workstations working on quick-response math exercises. Some are using math-drill apps on the iPad, iPod touches, or laptops. And some are using old-fashioned pencil and paper.
“We’ve been using mobile devices for a very long time, all the way back to Palm Pilots,” says Gagliolo, whose iPad purchases have been financed through a combination of county funds and school PTA contributions, and not as part of the state’s pilot program. “This is just our last step in doing this.”
Debra Griffith, a literacy-intervention teacher at the pre-K-8 Ruben Salazar Bilingual Education Center in Chicago, first introduced a set of 32 iPads—won as part of the city’s pilot—to an 8th grade class as a research and production tool to help students write their own mock grant proposal aimed at solving a community problem. She’s since shared the iPads with 6th and 7th graders, largely to give them some means for connectivity during the school day without a trip to the computer lab.
“It was very interesting for me, and I’ll be honest, frustrating at first, tounderstand it’s not a laptop,” Griffith says of the iPad. “There’s no file structure on the device itself. Much of this year has been me understanding, and working with other teachers to understand, ‘How do we get around that?’ ”
And in Texas’ 34,000-student Irving Independent School District, where all high schools follow a 1-to-1 computing model, about 10 students and 20 administrators are testing an assortment of tablet-computing devices to see how they would meet their daily needs. The district plans to buy 3,000 devices for the next school year, but in April had yet to commit to a make or model.
And, according to Sam Farsaii, the district’s director of instructional technology, for some functions—such as high school-level document writing—no tablet would suffice.
Administrators and iPads
As for the administrators, Farsaii says they’ve come to appreciate the ability to use the tablets to access their calendars and email while on the run through campus, as well as how to use their touch-screen capabilities to check off rubrics for teacher evaluations like they would with an evaluation form.
Nashville, Tenn.-based RANDA Solutions, which makes education intelligence software that helps teachers and other educators evaluate what and how students learn, is trying to capitalize on that sentiment by developing a pilot app that allows administrators to mark evaluation rubrics on the device even without Internet access in a classroom. The app is expected to be available for general purchase before the next school year.
RANDA’s president and chief executive officer, Marty Reed, says that an evaluator will need to use a desktop or laptop computer for part of the work, but that the app itself will be able to cut three hours—and loads of paperwork—from every teacher observation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Tablet Culture