iPads in Class
With benefits from apps to battery life to free e-books, is the iPad the ideal tool for today’s classroom?
If you step inside the study hall at Roslyn High School and close your eyes, the conversation you hear could be the soundtrack at any high school in the country. What's cool is being debated, shared, and reviewed by an eager group.
When you open your eyes, you realize how unique this discussion actually is. One reason is because the group includes not only high school juniors, seniors, and their teachers, but also the district's assistant superintendent and superintendent. The biggest reason is the topic everyone is still buzzing about: iPads, apps, and accessories and how best to use these tools in classrooms.
In December, this Long Island, New York, high school started an iPad pilot project. It gave tablets to a select number of teachers in the summer and handed them over to about 50 students in late December. Before they have even started accumulating observations, the school has been overrun with inquiries from as far away as Brazil and Korea.
"We did not give out the iPad because we thought it was a cool toy," says Superintendent Dan Brenner. "We gave it out because it was a device to serve our needs. What's generated interest was the fact that it's a cool toy. What got us moving is it serves our needs."
The irony is that one of the most school friendly companies, Apple, has not heavily marketed its 9.5-by-7.5-inch device specifically to schools, teachers, or administrators. Yet the combination of tools inside the tablet, combined with its portability and long-lasting battery, has many in education thinking this device could be the solution for a host of nagging problems, from 40-pound backpacks to outdated history books to expensive, single-use graphing calculators to the glut of paper copies most schools produce.
And while Brenner is right that his district is being noticed for the flashiness of this pilot, what's mostly going unsaid is that the district is actually saving money by handing out the coolest gadget on the market.
How did Roslyn, and some other districts, end up leading this classroom revolution that is capturing the attention of so many educators? How has this fairly typical school district integrated the newest piece of technology so quickly? Well, like most successful school stories, it began with lots of planning, discussion, and just a little bit of risk-taking.
Methodically Attempting to Change the Classroom
Roslyn's rush of attention obscures how the district has undertaken this pilot systematically. "We've been studying 1:1 programs and what's made them successful," says Edward Salina Jr., assistant superintendent for human resources and administration. Both he and Brenner have closely aligned themselves with this project, including overseeing teacher professional development and seemingly small details such as consulting with students about the best iPad covers to buy.
"The fact we were driving it and working with teachers, giving them all the support they needed sent a clear message that this was important to us," Salina notes.
Brenner says the idea for the pilot started well before iPads were invented. Several years ago, he and Salina saw a fifth-grade girl struggling with an oversize backpack, and they both thought, There has to be a better way. "Laptops, netbooks, none of them seemed to fit the bill," Brenner says. The multifunctional nature of the iPad intrigued both administrators when it was released in April 2010. When they realized the high school could put textbooks on the device, and the software would allow students to annotate PDFs and e-mail their homework to teachers, they investigated further. Turns out, 60 percent of the books used in the high school's English class (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being discussed the day I visited) are available as free digital downloads. Of course, tablets are much preferred in math class, where graphs can be drawn and equations scrawled out as needed.
Before you know it, the district's thought process went from "Wouldn't that be interesting" to "I bet we can justify the cost of these." The district spent $750 for each iPad, buying a 32GB unit with AppleCare, a case, a stylus, and a connection cable. The basic software needed, Apple Pages, Keynote, Office2 HD, and iAnnotate, adds up to less than $40.
Brenner notes the district created 17 million paper copies two years ago, and while the pilot is running with fewer than 50 students, he expects the number of copies to decrease significantly in the next few years. (The only paper seen in the two classes I observed were the Scholastic photo-use permission slips the students had to fill out.)
In fact, the paper savings alone justified the cost of giving devices to all seven members of the district's school board. By forgoing paper, Brenner estimated that even with a cost of $4,200 for the computers, the district would save more than $7,000 the first year, and $11,000 each additional year. That's a total of $30,000 in three years time, all while saving 80 reams of paper annually.
Teachers Still Unsure of Impact
The district took the plunge in the summer, choosing several teachers to receive the devices. All teachers involved volunteered. Enthusiasm was key. "We weren't concerned with what their tech background was," Brenner says.
Social studies teacher Ron Katovitz says the comprehensive professional development around the iPad allowed staffers to air "skepticism and enthusiasm. We talked about what we could do and what we couldn't do."
"Unless we train teachers effectively, it will fail," Salina notes. "If teachers don't have confidence, it will fail." Even though the classroom implementation is still in its infancy, the teachers admitted they can see more changes coming.
"Students are getting used to posting online and responding to comments," says Matthew Vogt, an English teacher. He's started to make small assignments to students the night before they start a lesson, hoping to get them thinking ahead of time. "This could potentially change the dynamic of the classroom," he adds.
Katovitz says he doesn't think the iPad will transform his classroom, but he's content to take small steps. Pointing to his midterm project, he notes students can now complete the work without booking a computer lab. "They seem to be happy to use [the iPads]," he says. "I don't know whether it's the novelty or whether it's because it works well."
While the teachers in the pilot are withholding their final judgment, that hasn't stopped the district from garnering all sorts of attention about its plans.
Salina says when some nearby school districts heard about the program, their officials sought advice from Roslyn. He decided a small meeting would be the best way to answer the escalating number of questions. When someone suggested advertising the session on the listserv for area schools, Salina says, "before you knew it, we had 65 districts and 140 people in the room."
When the New York Times used Roslyn as the lead for its front-page story about iPads in the classroom, attention multiplied. "We've gotten inquiries from Brazil, India, California, Norway, Korea," Brenner says, still amazed. "It's almost like we uncorked the bottle, the genie's come out, and everyone wants to come look."
Interest within the district has also peaked. While the pilot includes only four teachers, the superintendent says he's gotten requests for iPads from department chairs, foreign language teachers, even the local transportation director. "Everyone wants this tool," he says.
As cool as the Apple tablet is, Brenner says he would toss it all away if, or when, a new machine outpaces the iPad. "We're committed to the process, we're not committed to the machine," he says. "We're constantly monitoring what's out there to make the best decisions for our kids. Right now, the iPad is the one."
Despite all the attention, the district readily admits its pilot has barely gotten off the ground. Just a small percentage of students have the tool, even though many have spoken about how much easier note taking and studying are, in large part because all their notes are in one place.
"It's a more organized experience than my normal binder," says 11th grader Owen Seidman. He uses a Bluetooth keyboard to help him take notes faster in class (note taking has been the focus of most students so far). While the administration struggled to find good apps to help students, the students themselves quickly helped fill the gap once they got iPads. Someone found iAnnotate quickly, and much of the conversation in the study hall is about the various strengths and weaknesses of other apps, including those that can capture handwriting.
Students have also found an app that allows them to draw geometric figures and insert them into documents, as well as another one that allows students to create notebooks for each class.
Brenner admits the pilot is "evolving quicker than we can keep track. This is a true collaboration. We learn from each other." Although the benefits have yet to be spelled out, the district is planning to expand its pilot to a full grade of high school students next year. By purchasing or leasing the tablets and spreading the cost over four years, Roslyn will spend about $43,000 from its existing technology account, Brenner says. "It's not an exorbitant amount of money to spend."
Pilots Springing Up
While the path Roslyn is taking is rare, it's certainly not unique. Districts across the country are running their own iPad experiments. The range of the device, and its apps, allows it to be used from kindergartens to colleges to, starting this fall, the incoming class at Stanford's School of Medicine. Roslyn's neighboring district, Mineola, is running a larger pilot where 200 fifth graders use iPads daily, while far west, third graders in the small Oregon district of Canby are using both iPods and iPads. Similar projects are springing up in large districts, such as New York City schools, Chicago Public Schools, and San Francisco USD.
"We've recovered six full school days" through our iPod and iPad use, brags Joseph Morelock, Canby's director of technology and innovation. How is that possible? He claims that because the devices are always on, elementary students have been using a quick two-minute math app to refresh their skills as they transition from recess to class. Recapturing this time each day adds up to six full school days, he surmises. His district of 5,000 students has 3,000 iPods and 300 iPads.
"The kids are engaged," Morelock says. "The shiny, new factor has worn off-now they're just using it as a tool." District teachers have surprised themselves with what they've accomplished, he adds. One high school science teacher went paperless "almost by accident," while a 34-year veteran has jumped on the bandwagon and is now creating an e-publication.
"Teachers are doing our research and development happily," says Morelock. "I have notes from them that are almost all caps." Others have said, ‘This is the most fun I've had teaching in 25 years.' I have a lot of very non-tech teachers doing some techy things," he admits.
In Mineola, Superintendent Michael Nagler got an unexpected side benefit after outfitting one school's fifth-grade class with iPads. Because the school was close to his office, a group of students playing nearby took it upon themselves to give him a daily update when he was going home. "Today we did a Keynote on tsunamis," students told him, he remembers with a laugh. Other students in the grade are sending him projects they completed on the devices. "No one's ever done that before," he adds.
Yet Mineola had to work through some problems, such as difficulty accessing its Flash-based math program on the iPad, or initially getting around the tablet's printing problem. Transferring documents and syncing the machines was originally problematic, Nagler says, but the district has fixed most of its problems.
Nassau County Schools (Long Island, New York) curriculum and IT official Matthew Hejna predicts these experiments will lead to more schools trying the device. When he surveyed the 43 districts he services about what type of IT training they wanted to receive, 40 of them choose iPad training. "That's unprecedented," he says.
As momentum builds, specific education apps are making the device even more useful in schools nationwide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is testing an iPad-only algebra course, while Pearson's PowerTeacher Mobile includes a free grade-book app and some grammar lessons with video. Pearson, which has more than 100 apps already, is also testing a new history curriculum designed for the iPad in Virginia and has released Common Core-aligned textbooks in mobile versions.
"We hear from everyone that [mobile learning] is a requirement," says Mary McCaffrey, CEO of THiNQ Ed. The company's new journ(i)e program allows students to set up their own learning environment and have access to it from multiple mobile devices. "We've grasped the power of exploding that classroom and we want to enable that classroom," she adds.
Jody Bowie, a high school physics and earth science teacher at Putnam City High School in Northwest, Oklahoma, uses this program to push his students to write their own textbook. He uses an iPad in the classroom, taking advantage of the long battery life and his ability to import Google documents into the program for maximum flexibility.
Superintendent Nagler returns to a theme often mentioned when discussing these types of classroom experiments. "My job is to deliver the greatest education experience I can for kids."