A Texas school district is trying to close its digital divide by distributing thousands of Apple tablet computers in a move that could make it the largest iPad program for students in the United States.
The McAllen Independent School District began distributing 6,800 devices last week—mostly the iPad tablet computers, but also hundreds of iPod Touch devices for its youngest students.
By this time next year, the district says, every one of its more than 25,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade will receive an iPad or iPod Touch. The district believes it’s the largest effort of its kind, and while Apple Inc. would not confirm that, other districts the company noted as having made large investments have not made ones as big as McAllen’s.
Educational use of the tablet computers is so new that there’s little evidence available on their impact for improving learning. McAllen Superintendent James Ponce said the district wanted to change the classroom culture, making it more interactive and creative, and decided Apple’s devices—even at $500 retail for an iPad 2—were the best investment.
The district’s typical classroom is outfitted with three computers for students and one for the teacher. Under the new plan, those technoogy investments will be supplanted by the iPads. For now, McAllen’s iPads don’t carry its textbooks, but eventually they will, and at much lower cost than the hard copies, which can cost $200 apiece.
A small group of teachers in the district began preparing more than a year ago to incorporate the devices into their lessons. Recently, more instructors have started studying the devices. Teachers already training will see their students receive the first wave of devices.
About two-thirds of McAllen students were characterized as economically disadvantaged in 2010, the most recent data available, according to the district. The median household income in McAllen, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border near the southern tip of Texas, was about $41,000 in 2010.
School board President Sam Saldivar Jr. said the $20.5 million investment in the technology aims at “equity.”
“We know that when they do achieve and are successful, they are going to be generationally impacting their families and this community,” Mr. Saldivar said of district students.
Stacey Banks, a social studies teacher at McAllen Memorial High School, helped the district shape its program. She said that textbooks for her class were 12 years old and that she hadn’t used them in the past five years, choosing to cobble together her own lessons instead, with the hope of collaborating with colleagues to build electronic textbooks.
“It’s given us a great opportunity to hone our skills as teachers and change our paradigm a little bit about what our classrooms look like and how we approach learning,” Ms. Banks said of the iPads program. “That excitement has definitely migrated to the kids.”
Sophomores in her class pulled up art images recently on their iPads. Ms. Banks asked them to find out how changes taking place during the Renaissance were demonstrated in art from the period.
“It’s actually a really good technology,” said 15-year-old Christian Hernandez, gently polishing the screen with the cuff of his sweatshirt.
He had never used an iPad before last month, when he and other students got a sneak preview. After spending some time with it over the weekend, Mr. Hernandez was using the note-taking application and others with ease.
The district installed tracking software on the iPads so they won’t go missing, and their Internet connections will still be through the school district’s filter, meaning students won’t be able to access any sites that they’d be restricted from in school. Parents have to pay a $40 refundable deposit in two payments and can receive help with paying.
Elsewhere, the Zeeland public schools in Michigan gave 1,800 iPads to all of its high school students last fall and hopes to eventually cover every student in grades 3-12. The Chicago school system bought about 10,000 iPads, and some individual schools in the district have bought more using discretionary funds, but distribution of the devices is far from districtwide.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Texas District Sees iPads Easing Its Digital Divide