Across the country, schools announce iPad pilots, bring the mobile devices into the classroom and rave about their new tools.
“It’s really the first version of the iPad, and there’s a lot of bluster and a lot of sort of enthusiasm about iPads without a lot of concrete statistics and case studies to go by,” said Sam Gliksman, educational technology director at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Calif.
"People are jumping in left, right and center," he continued, "and what I’m finding is they’re great for some things, they’re a little limited in others, and it’s a different paradigm from using laptops. You can’t use them the same way, and I think that’s where a lot of people are jumping in and making a mistake."
To figure out how this device impacts schools, we'll take a look at pilot programs in two California schools and one Oregon school district. Keep reading to find out the technical and instructional implications of the iPad in the classroom.
The pilot programs
In the heart of the Willamette Valley about 23 miles south of Portland, Canby School District serves 5,000 students in nine schools. In May 2010, administrators and teachers started testing the iPad, which launched in April. In the fall, the district launched an iPad pilot that supplied 25 devices to teachers and about 300 to students for use in class.
The district started the pilot for a number of reasons, said Joe Morelock, director of technology and innovation.
- Teachers and students learn with 2,000 iPod touches, so they're comfortable with Apple mobile devices.
- Through that experience, Morelock knew the iOperating System (iOS) had enough power.
- Because teachers already used iTunes, they could manage the iPads themselves.
One science teacher has a cart of iPads, so in each of his classes, every student uses one every day. In the Dual Language Immersion Program, two classes of fifth-graders have a device assigned to them. And on a smaller scale, the district deployed them at all grade levels in various subjects.
About 108 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Vallecito Union School District in Avery, Calif., serves 720 kindergarten through eighth-grade students in three schools. In August, the district started an iPad pilot at Avery Middle School, which earned the title of Apple Distinguished School for the 2010-2011 school year.
When California released categorical funding for textbook adoption, district staff considered adopting new math textbooks, said Michael Wells, director of technology. But the staff members asked the middle school teachers, "If you could do something else with this money, what would you do?"
The teachers wanted a mobile computing device for each student. So the district's business manager, superintendent, middle school principal and technology director worked together to launch a pilot starting with 190 iPads for the school's 300 students.
Seventh- and eighth-graders have their own device, and eighth-grade students can take their devices home. Both fifth- and sixth-graders have classroom sets.
About 31 miles northwest of Los Angeles, New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Calif., started an iPad pilot in September with 45 or 50 devices to explore ways students could use them. During the school year, the staff members hoped to transition to e-books, said Sam Gliksman, the educational technology director.
Five history, religious studies and science classes either access iPads from a cart or go to a classroom that stores the devices in a closet.
Here's what the iPad brings to the table from the perspective of these three technology directors.
Screen size, touch interface
The 10-inch screen renders content beautifully and has a nice large touch interface that students with motor skill issues can work with easily, Morelock said.
The battery life made the iPad an easy choice for Avery Middle School, Wells said. Even with a 6-cell battery, a netbook would only last four hours. And that's not long enough in a 6 1/2- or 7-hour school day. The iPad advertised a 10-hour video viewing battery life, and that has proved true.
Predictable user experience
Students pull the iPad out, hit power, and jump into an app quickly. Because the process is so fast, teachers don't lose much instruction time. The apps also work well consistently, Wells said.
“I’m a fan of open-source, but one of the things that the iPad does better than anybody else is it gives you a predictable user experience," Wells explained. "You know when you open an application that it’s going to run. You know what it’s going to do. Everything happens the way it should happen 99.9 percent of the time."
With the iPad, you don't have to worry about outlets, power cords or battery life, Gliksman said. And they're fantastic for communicating, e-reading and Web browsing.
Device limitations, challenges
But the device does have limitations and presents challenges that technology directors need to overcome.
At the start of the Canby School District pilot, pairs of fifth-grade students shared iPads in the Dual Language Immersion Program. But Morelock quickly saw the need to assign each student a device, and he did.
The biggest challenge at New Community Jewish High School is sharing the devices, which students have to do because of budget considerations. For the device to be effective in the classroom, you need to have your own because it's a personal device that leaves a data footprint, Gliksman said.
In a Google forms survey of 126 students in the history and religious studies classes, Gliksman asked, "On a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helpful), to what degree has the use of iPads helped your learning in class?" Students responded with an overall average of 3.38.
While the response was positive, it wasn't the ringing endorsement Gliksman hoped for.
He cites two factors that contributed to this response in a blog post reflecting on the results: Sharing the iPads doesn't allow students to make them their own, and there's a learning curve to acquire the skills you need to effectively use the touch interface.
The touch interface
When Gliksman asked them how well they could type on the iPad on a scale of 1 (difficult) to 5 (easy), the student overall average was 3.60. Most of the students said they typed comfortably on the on-screen keyboards, but they were writing short notes, annotations and e-mails, not long documents.
“The more they use it, the more they become comfortable," Gliksman said, "but I’m not ready to say that all kids would be comfortable using iPads all day long. Some of them just don’t like the touch interface and the keyboards.”
But in the class that used the iPads most, more students preferred iPads.
In Canby School District, students adapted quickly to the on-screen keyboard. That's more of a challenge for the teachers, Morelock said.