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Day of the Tablet

In classrooms, it's the right tool for the job.

Imagine packing for a weekend trip and trying to decide whether to use a big camp trunk or a small suitcase that fits in the overhead storage area of a plane. Or consider where you would want to shop for groceries for a big dinner party you are hosting: the local supermarket or the neighborhood delicatessen.

The response to each of these choices seems obvious because the utilitarian purpose for each clearly defines the answer. A camp trunk and a local deli are both very useful in the right circumstances, but wouldn’t be in the scenarios described above. Similarly, both laptops and tablets have their strengths and weaknesses. However, the choice, as it applies to their utility in the classroom, is eminently clear. The winner, for a multitude of reasons, is the tablet.

I am a regular user of a laptop, and I consider it to be a valuable tool. I use it primarily as a writing instrument, on which I construct, and edit, papers. Additionally, I appreciate my laptop’s ability to let me work in different spaces with relative ease. But as a tool for the classroom, it pales in comparison with the tablet.

Two and a half years ago, we began a pilot program in the Roslyn Public Schools in New York in which we distributed iPads to 75 students. Based on its success, we have expanded the program to more than 900 students. By early this year, all 1,100 students in the high school will be using personal tablets. Our goals were simple:

  1. Provide students with a highly portable device that they would value.
  2. Find a device that allows easy communication between student and teacher as well as student-to-student.
  3. Provide a tool that would allow both students and teachers to be producers and creators of their work.
  4. Establish a “paperless” school environment.

These goals have been more than met.

When we began the pilot, portability was critical. We wanted to literally lighten students’ loads. We wanted to do away with strapping “camp trunks” to their backs. The iPad has done just that, and at a weight and size that can’t be matched by any laptop of similar cost. Roslyn students can access many of their textbooks and novels on their tablets, and take notes on them too, using the keyboard cases we provide. Because textbook companies haven’t kept up with our initiative by creating enough interactive materials, we have moved toward digitizing teacher-made materials. These are provided to students via e-mail and teacher webpages, thereby removing the need for folders and notebooks.

Communication is possibly the most exciting component of the iPad initiative. Teachers send assignments to students via e-mail. Students complete the assignment and send it back to the teachers in a pdf format. The e-mail hits the teacher’s district mailbox and is automatically routed to a file labeled with the student’s name, which is embedded inside a folder organized by class period. The teacher retrieves the assignment, corrects it on the iPad, and sends it back to the student, with no paper exchanging hands. Plus, the student, the teacher, and our e-mail server in Roslyn all have copies of the finished, corrected assignment. Gone are the days of “You never ­handed it back to me” or “I gave it to you on Wednesday. I don’t know why you don’t have it.”

Our focus in Roslyn is to encourage students and teachers to be researchers, questioners, creators of ideas, and producers of innovative thought and knowledge. Our iPads provide a supportive venue for this to occur—one prime example is teachers using iBooks Author to create their own interactive digital “textbooks.” Teachers and students now create units of study that they share with one another via their virtual bookshelves. Teachers also use iTunes U to create courses and apps for students. Similarly, students and teachers use iMovie to produce high-quality, edited movies. Can this be done on a laptop? Sure (although not iTunes U), just like you can shop for Christmas dinner at the local deli. But I would ask, why shop there when you have far better choices at the supermarket for way less money? It almost seems like a rhetorical question, doesn’t it?

P.S. I wrote this article on my laptop computer at work. It seemed like the right tool for the job!

—Dan Brenner is the Roslyn (Long Island) Public Schools superintendent.

—Winter 2013—

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