After a year on the market, the iPad is still the hottest tablet around. And students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have been lucky enough to use them in the classroom for an entire school year.

Teachers at various CPS institutions are using the iPad to heighten student learning at all grade levels. Whether it’s helping special education students “speak” to grocery store clerks on field trips, assisting high school physics students in “building” roller coasters to understand motion and energy, or conducting daily formative assessments to improve student performance, the iPad engages students — and according to experts, that’s the most rewarding part.

“What we’ve found with the iPads as we’ve rolled this out is that having kids with a device such as the iPad in the classroom — within the curriculum — is very powerful,” said CPS Technology Education Director John Connolly. “Our feedback from our teachers and students is that this is something they’re using every day. It’s embedded in all of their subjects, even if they were originally targeting one subject, and we’re seeing some really cool things happening with those students.”

CPS is testing the device in more than 20 schools to see whether it could eventually become a permanent learning tool for the entire school district. Since the trial launched last August, other school districts around the country have followed suit. The expansion of technology in education — and in government at large — is widespread. Over the last several years, many colleges, universities and K-12 school districts, not to mention local and state agencies, have incorporated emerging technology like Apple iPhones and Amazon Kindles into their daily lives. Adding the iPad is just an extension of this.

While some contend that such technology incorporated into the classroom can be more of a distraction than a learning tool, CPS executives, educators and students are proving otherwise.

iPads in Action

At Chicago’s Burley Elementary School, Technology Coordinator Carolyn Skibba said iPads allow for easy collaboration among teachers and students. The administration, she said, was excited about the potential of a device that’s small, flexible, portable, visual and hands-on, especially when working with younger students.

“It really seemed like something that could integrate more seamlessly into the learning experience for the kids,” she said. “We felt that other technology initiatives in the district had to some extent underserved or overlooked our youngest learners, and we felt that the iPad was a tool, because of its visual and hands-on design, would really be a natural fit for our youngest learners.”

The kids have taken to the technology, navigating the iPad’s apps with ease and using the touchscreen like pros, she said. The second-graders in teacher Begoña Cowan’s class learn about spelling and pronunciation without having to share a pile of traditional magnetic letters. Instead, each student uses the ABC — Magnetic Alphabet app on his or her iPad to spell “-oom” and “-oop” words. When it’s time to put the iPads away, they each return the device to the cart with two hands held up against their chests to keep it safe.

First-grade students have used apps like Pages, Simplenote and smartNote to help with basic word processing. For one assignment, the kids copied a photo of a totem pole from the Web, pasted it in the app and wrote a few sentences about the meaning of the totem pole, which shows honor when a tribe chief has died.

“We’ve done a lot of explicit instruction on how to use the iPad and basic word-processing skills for young children, and the iPad allows us to take a virtual field trip every day by searching Web content in a way that’s user-friendly for early childhood students,” said teacher Kristin Ziemke-Fastabend.

At the Chicago High School for the Arts, physics students work in small groups to use the Coaster Physics app to create roller coasters while incorporating traditional learning methods, said CPS Technology Integration Specialist Margaret Murphy.

“They start out with sheets to do the mathematics — the physics calculations — and another person is drawing a roller coaster on a large sheet of paper,” she said. “Another is designing it on the iPad, and they’re all sharing with each other, making sure the way their math worked out is working on the iPad, and it is matching what they’ve drawn on their paper.”

When teacher Kevin Cram taught the roller coaster lesson plan pre-iPad, he said several students didn’t have the opportunity to design their own roller coasters, which involved physical materials like pipe insulation that students cut up and glued together to make one-dimensional projects. “Not everyone was able to create as much as I wanted,” he said. “The iPad allowed easy access and manipulation and creation because of this app. So every group got to design and put their ideas into an actual model.”

Also using a blended approach in the classroom is Jenny Cho-Magiera, whose fourth-grade class at the National Teachers Academy used iPads to follow along with a voice-recorded lesson about the anatomy of a flower. The students saw the pages in the book from which Cho-Magiera was reading. Any student who missed the lesson could review that exact lesson at a later time.

Where does traditional teaching enter the picture? Her teacher’s assistant moved from table to table with a real lily to show students what they were learning about.

High-Tech Learning

For Cho-Magiera, the most revolutionary thing about the iPad is how fast she can respond to students’ assessments of the day’s lesson. Before the iPad, the children would scribble something on a half-sheet of paper and turn it in, sometimes forgetting to write their names. Cho-Magiera wasn’t able to react or answer questions until at least the next day.

Now Cho-Magiera said she uses Google Forms, a survey development interface. In about 30 seconds, she can put three or four questions in the form, and the students use the iPads to answer. The results are formulated into a Google spreadsheet in real time, and she can immediately sort through them and form work groups based on which students need help with different topics.

“Just like that, I have my differentiated groups for that day,” she said. “I don’t need to wait 24 hours to put them into a group — when they forgot what they were learning about yesterday. As a result of that, their proficiency has gone up because my teaching has become more efficient.”

Back at the School for the Arts, Cram also uses iPads for formative assessments, utilizing what he calls a “WebQuest.” Cram likes to include both a pre-quiz and a post-quiz, and during a lesson, students investigate different websites on their iPads to research and answer questions. “We can see what areas of growth they have after they’ve done the research,” he said, noting that the answers to both pre- and post-quizzes are submitted via Google docs.

Cram says he hasn’t seen any dramatic improvements in learning since incorporating the iPad, but he anticipates that there will be soon. “The students are much more engaged and interested in the material. And because of that, maybe I’m pushing them a bit more and asking more challenging questions,” he said. “Through practice and more work with challenging questions, and being exposed to that with the engagement at 90 to 100 percent with the iPad versus much lower with a lecture or even hands-on labs.”

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