In four Virginia school divisions, a four month pilot of e-books and iPads sheds light on the potential benefits and challenges these digital tools offer.
The Beyond Textbooks Year One Report paints a qualitative case study that gives more insight into issues like cost. But it doesn't draw definitive conclusions, said Tammy McGraw, the director of educational technology at the Virginia Education Department.
Instead, this case study provides a snapshot of class experiences with e-books and mobile devices and raises questions that school districts should ponder.
Hands down, both teachers and the 333 students who participated reported that the iPad has great potential as a teaching and learning tool.
In general, students liked its immediate access to the Internet and portability. A number of students shared that they preferred interacting with e-books over paper textbooks. And the e-books also fit with their learning style.
“Students really did have a sense that this adapted nicely to the way they like to learn or the way they would like to approach things,” McGraw said.
But other students had a hard time focusing as they read digital material. And the e-books didn't go deep enough for some of them.
They wanted richer content, and more of it. That wasn't something they would have said about a paper textbook.
When they saw the embedded video and interactive timelines in the e-books, they realized that a textbook doesn't have to be flat. And once they realized that possibility, they asked for even richer activities.
“They’re ready for more, not just in terms of additional content, but the ability to go deeper into the content that they’re working with.”
The teachers said the device supported flow and transition from one activity to the next in the classroom. With Internet access on a personal device, students didn't have to wait to find out answers to their questions.
As one high school teacher said in a survey, "The best part was having access at anytime to the Internet. For example, if a student pops up with a random question that no one knows the answer to, they can find it quickly and share it with the class. Typically, we would have to sign up for a computer lab for the student to have access to the Internet."
The students were engaged with the apps, which lined up to the Standards of Learning.
But the first e-book was delivered through a browser. And the students did not like it.
On the iPad, they preferred e-books delivered as apps, which they started using later in the pilot in February.
These tools gave educators the opportunity to become facilitators and to guide students as they learn. Students could direct more of their own learning, research a question that came up immediately, and focus on the areas they struggle with.
Teachers reported that students with special needs actually learned quickly with the mobile and digital tools. And students seemed to engage better with the interactive content than non-interactive paper.
But one teacher said in the survey that the e-book content needed to focus more on test material. And that type of comment shows the importance of supporting teachers and showing them what their expectations should be. Teaching to the test is not great teaching, and Virginia was not trying to find an electronic way to deliver teaching to the test experiences.
"It is important to know because we have to realize that these devices do not make better teachers," McGraw said. "They are still going to need support in how to use them effectively in the classroom."
For this pilot, a wide range of teachers from more traditional to early adopters participated so that the state could hear from different perspectives. If you use a device, including the iPad, to support learning, teachers need to tap into the ability to differentiate instruction easily and serve more as facilitators instead of directing instruction.
"One of the key things that we have to do a better job on is to focus on professional development and pedagogy."
If you approach teaching the same way you did without the devices, you're not going to realize the benefits.
More than anything, this pilot shined a light on what kinds of policy questions districts need to ask and what things they need to understand.
The Education Department left the decision up to school districts to allow students to take devices home. Some school divisions did allow them to take the devices home, while others kept them at school.
When AT&T offered an unlimited data plan, one school division wanted to explore the policy implications of anywhere learning with that plan. But after the company eliminated the plan for new customers in June 2010, that option went off the table.
The technical and social considerations also raised more questions than answers.
“The technical challenges are the easiest in my view to overcome a lot of times,” McGraw said. "The social and policy issues take a little longer. But the problem is we never really take the time to frame these experiences in a way that we can look at all of those.”
Teachers and students gave publishers feedback on the new products they developed for the pilot. Because the iPad came out in April 2010, and much of the publishers' digital content was in Flash, the developers had to start from scratch.
“We have really been working with our partners to hopefully help inform the development of their products, and I think as a result you’re going to see good products coming out of the process.”
For this pilot, Pearson Education created three social studies apps and developed six digital chapters for middle and high school students. The apps delivered content based on two Virginia approved World History I and U.S. History II textbooks.
And they focused on areas that students historically struggled with on state tests. For example, they have trouble identifying significant people in history and putting events in chronological order.
Based on a Five Ponds Press textbook approved by Virginia, Victory Productions created an early Jamestown app for fourth-graders. The Adobe digital publishing platform that it used hadn't even reached the beta stage yet, but the company made it available for the pilot.
During the pilot, MashON started developing a platform for students to share and demonstrate what they learned about Jamestown. The schools weren't able to use it in this pilot, but will be able to next school year. The department is in the process of preparing libraries of objects, backgrounds and characters so students can create multimedia projects.
For a Virtual Virginia Advanced Placement Biology course, students used the Inkling e-reader to study digital content based on a McGraw-Hill Raven Biology textbook. All of these resources included interactive learning content such as embedded videos, assessments and social note sharing.
When educators and students shared their ideas and concerns about the products in the pilot, they saw their changes instantly in development. The companies created these untested devices for the pilot, and part of the challenge for vendors was the rapid development cycle.
"They allowed us to see the messy business of development in a way that I think the educators got a real appreciation for what goes into shaping products, and certainly they got great feedback in a timely manner."
The schools will keep the iPads and digital content, and occasionally the department will follow up to see where they're going with them. In a rural, economically depressed part of the state, Henry County Schools has purchased 3,000 to 4,000 devices because administrators see their potential for learning.
One of the reasons the department started the Beyond Textbooks project was to find out if mobile devices and digital content were cost-effective alternatives to print textbooks. But this report doesn't have a definitive answer. Instead, it provides more insight into these issues.
A number of things factor into the cost and raise questions about what the school's responsibility is, including the following:
The volume app purchasing program is imperfect now, though Apple is working on it. And scaling up devices also presents a challenge.
"Until those things are settled, it's going to be hard to come up with a firm number to move forward."
In the future, the department will take a closer look at these factors.
But the schools will decide for themselves how to answer the questions this pilot raised. The department enabled them to explore mobile devices and digital content. It did not set out to determine what an acceptable use policy needs to look like or whether students should take devices home.
Now Beyond Textbooks will move on to Phase II, which focuses on what kinds of apps, tools and resources should be included in students' e-backpacks.
The state superintendent has sent an invitation to the publishing community to participate in the e-backpack development. This phase will emphasize science, technology, engineering and math areas. And the e-backpack will provide a more integrated approach to delivering digital tools to students.