When New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in her run for mayor, said she had a $300 million education agenda to cover the cost of a tablet for every student, according to the New York Times, the move would have saved around $100 million by dumping traditional textbooks. But the idea makes people nervous: replacing books with tablets sounds too good to be true.
Politicians love to talk about technology with education, and from New York to New Mexico, a sea of change is happening in the classroom, as schools introduce tablets and apps into the curriculum. But these big ideas carry big price tags, and even bigger risks, and success in helping children learn isn’t as easy as simply buying a bunch of iPads.
Just look at the laptop. Decades ago, schools asked the same basic question: do computing device help children learn? Research, collected in the early 2000s when schools began to adopt laptops, says yes, but in more different ways than you might think.
With the growing popularity of PCs, schools built costly computer labs to give students an opportunity to learn to code, rather than use them learn about other subjects. But as the price of computing came down, schools began to put laptops into each student’s hands, in a program called the “one-on-one laptop” that learning model was flipped upside-down. The idea was simple: make learning interactive to improve test scores, and hopefully, transform the educational system.
According to Lori Holcomb, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, it worked. After handing out laptops, students began to more actively participate in classrooms, as well as miss fewer school days. In Alabama, alone, the absentee rate plunged by one-third, while in Maine, it dropped by nearly 10 percent.
In fact, schools nationwide reported a rise in writing scores due, in part, to children spending more time to write, edit and reflect on assignments, Holcomb reported, with the added benefit of a drop in bad behavior.
When Maine rolled out its program in 2005, students with laptops scored better than two-thirds of those who didn’t use them in 2000. Children that didn’t receive a laptop had the lowest scores, while those that did received the highest on the Maine Educational Assessment.
In fact, students who consistently did homework on laptops improved their writing scores on both online and pen-and-paper tests, showing that technology engages kids in the craft of writing, and not simply gives them digital crutches, like spellcheck and thesaurus.
Students with laptops scored better in math, too. In South Carolina, middle-schoolers in its two-year laptop program outscored those that weren’t enrolled on standardized state tests. While the rise in math scores wasn’t as dramatic as in writing and language arts, in part, because math wasn’t heavily emphasized when laptops were first introduced, overall it shows how technology can yield concrete results across all subjects.
According to Holcomb, the increase in achievement scores lies in the ability of laptops to motivate children and keep them engaged in classrooms. But she acknowledged that some programs were more successful than others, and the “levels of success vary” based on the “method and model of implementation.”
Not all schools that handed out laptops saw gains in scores. For example, in Texas, students with laptops score roughly the same compared to those without, Holcomb noted. And, in Virginia, a high school that faced rising costs dropped its laptop program after failing to see any academic gains.
Schools that cut laptop programs don’t always study the reasons for their failure, and often, these one-on-one programs need a bit of time before their full effects are felt. But by exploring the ones that fell short, we can gleam what works, and learn the best techniques for integrating tablets, so as not to repeat past mistakes.
Today, history is repeating, and nationwide, students are handing in textbooks for tablets, instead of laptops. But success doesn’t come from simply handing out an iPad. Like lessons from decade’s past, the best ones understand that the program is more important than the device. Without a proper support structure in place, at $1,000 tax dollars apiece, these tablets risk becoming overpriced pencils for note-taking.
According to the New York Times, that’s why educators come to roam the halls in Mooresville, N.C., often at their own expense, hoping to unlock the secret formula to its digital classroom success. In 2011, the Department of Education reported that nine-in-ten students in the town graduated, up from eight only three years ago. More impressive, about 90 percent of Mooresville students passed state reading, math and science proficiency tests, up from 75 percent in 2008.
But perhaps its greatest achievement was keeping a lid on costs: it spent a mere $7,400 on each student per year, ranking 100 out of 115 districts in North Carolina.
Mooresville, along with Peoria Notre Dame Catholic High School and the Kohelet Foundation in New Jersey and Philadelphia, are raising test scores with their tablet programs, and to understand what they’re doing right, we’ll delve into six strategies that are paying off.
1. It’s not the tablet, it’s the classroom.
It starts with the way teachers teach. Handing a couple of iPads doesn’t make a digital classroom, and teachers need to redefine their role by changing the way they interact and engage with students.
In a traditional setting, teachers stand in front of the chalkboard, while children sit at their desks, staring blankly down at textbooks, but in a successful digital classroom, they don’t simply learn from lectures, but also use tablets in small groups to crowdsource polling, voting and brainstorming, for example, on the causes of the Civil War. Students use technology to fuel the discussion, allowing teachers to swoop in only when guidance or consulting is needed.
“This is not about the technology,” Mark Edwards, Mooresville’s superintendent, told the New York Times. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”
Tablet give teachers a tool to direct and oversee, effectively becoming a scaffold to support active learning.
2. Put the support structure in first.
Successful digital classrooms put a premium on supporting teachers, students and families. Instructors can, and will, change their methods of teaching, but they need to become comfortable with tablets, and good programs carve out spaces for teachers to share and inspire each other.
Some schools spend the summer, or up to a year, to introduce, explain and practice digital teaching concepts to faculty, and they don’t simply pile on extra responsibilities, but instead, create a dedicated tech staff to aid instructors. Teachers will often schedule regular meetings with co-workers to share fun, digital techniques and compare notes to see if students actually learn the material, and not just speed through things.
But community involvement is also critical. The best often host parent nights, during digital rollouts to bring in families, and then, follow up with periodic meetings to touch base.
3. Invest in infrastructure.
If teachers, students and parents jump on the digital bandwagon, schools need to invest in networks to support the added bandwidth. Infrastructure, and the funding to support it, must be in place for these programs to succeed.
In times of tight budgets, funding is already stretched thin, and hiring a tech staff often means cuts in other positions or programs, or an increase class size, must be made. Schools can look to free up funds by downsizing computer labs, or simply cutting old-fashioned expenses, like worksheets, maps and globes, just to name a few.
In New York City, public schools banned new iPads and mobile devices from using its schools’ Wi-Fi networks, due to widespread use that maxed out its servers. It spent over $1 million on iPads for teachers, but neglected to make improvements to network infrastructure. In the end, though, unless schools can find the funding to setup and support a network first, the moneies used to give each student a tablet will be squandered, leading to, ultimately, the failure of any program.
4. Give students a sense of ownership.
In worrying about the cost of repairs, some schools don’t let students take their tablets home. But according to research and anecdotal data, children need them 24/7 to see the most improvement in grades and test scores, so limiting tablets to class hours would defeat the purpose of buying them in the first place.
Instead, schools can, and should, let kids take their devices home. Ask them to sign contract, complete with expectations for care and treatment, to foster a sense of privilege. Many schools, in fact, report lower repair costs with this method, since students feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility in taking care of their own device.
Another method to consider is involving families, which can help cover costs. Some schools ask for a small subsidy, around $50 a year, to hold as a deposit in case of repairs. In poorer districts, where Internet isn’t commonplace at home, districts can often negotiate a cheaper rate on broadband service, at around $10 a month.
5. Embrace technology.
Today, kids are digital natives; they’ve grown up online, so they learn about technology at a faster rate than teachers and administrators. Seasoned educators are often intimidated by gadgets, so they grasp onto traditional tools, like scripted lectures and textbook lessons, to maintain a sense of authority and power in the classroom. But they, perhaps more than anyone, need to truly integrate digital tools to their methods for these programs to succeed.
“By spending my time modeling what I believe is important, it allows the staff to get on board,” Charlie Roy, principal of Peoria Notre Dame High School, who also leads technology-teaching strategy sessions, told Dangerously Irrelevant. “I won’t ask you to do something that I won’t do or be willing to learn to do.”
Or, as Mooresville superintendent Edwards told the New York Times, “You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them.” That means teachers must give up some control — often a scary thought — for these programs to take off.
6. Tinker and tweak the classroom.
Tablets not only affect the way teachers and students think, but they also change the way they interact with each other. By using computerized feedback tools, for example, instructors can gauge the progress of each student, and if a child needs extra support, like one-on-one time, software can alert the teacher without interrupting the classroom.
A room of students with their own digital windows to the world is very different from kids passively arranged in desks, waiting to hear a lecture. Digital schools understand that, so they tweak and experiment in ways to set up classrooms. Good teachers, too, don’t just sit at their desks. They walk around during discussion to ensure students are engaged and kept on task.
Those involved in successful programs say finding a right method is an ongoing struggle — a journey that neither begins nor ends with merely tablets — and combine innovation with tried-and-true traditional methods create the best environment to reap the most reward.
The SmartSchool initiative, funded by the Kohelet Foundation, is one example where students are being given iPads as collaborative learning tools.
After its nine schools — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Greater Philadelphia area — handed out 1,200 iPads, fifth to twelfth graders used them as interactive tools to study Judaic texts, learn about World War 2, and even dissect a digital frog.
“We help schools provide the things they think they need to be the best schools and provide an excellent education,” Holly Cohen, the Kohelet Foundation’s executive director, said.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. spends about $7 billion a year on textbooks, most of which are seven to 10 years out of date, so tablets are especially well-suited for today’s fast-paced, modern learning environments, and e-books, with interactive and visual tools, are an appealing option to the changing preferences of an increasingly plugged-in generation of students.
Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, head of Kellman Brown Academy, told me he’s still amazed at the level of excitement iPads can generate, even weeks after his fifth to eighth graders received them. Math and science, for example, is taught using algebra graphing calculator and geometry sketch apps, where students must calculate real-time equations with graphs on touch screens. It’s cheaper, too, Rabbi Schwartz said, since apps replace the cost of textbooks and teaching materials.
In 2012, Apple, Intel and McGraw Hill representatives joined technology and publishing heavy-hitters to meet with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to discuss a report indicating tablets could save public schools a total of $3 billion each year. With over 49 million students enrolled, that comes out to about $60 in savings per student, or nearly half the cost of traditional textbooks.
For science, Kellman Brown uses Apple TV to lead a virtual frog dissection. Colored annotation tools help students follow the experiment, complete with labeled organs. It’s a great alternative for concerned parents who worry about the ethics, or safety from chemicals, like formaldehyde, of using live animals.
“All the things we are purchasing as apps are aligned with state curriculum and the school,” Rabbi Schwartz said. One thing the technology has deepened, he added, is the intellectual discussion over subjects and instruction. “We tend to get bogged down, but this program has raised the conversation to the highest level — academics.”
When publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt tested an interactive iPad version of its Algebra 1 textbook in California’s Riverside Unified School District, students who it scored 20 percent higher on standardized tests, compared to those who learned from traditional textbooks.
By adding video, graphics and built-in quizzes that invite students to participate and give instant feedback, the company found that children were “more motivated, attentive, and engaged” than those with the paper books.
A small, but growing, number of researchers are discovering that readers remember more of what they read in printed books, in the long-term, when compared to the electronic screen. For example, Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, studied the effects of e-books on memory, by “bombarding” participants with economics questions on digital and printed versions of textbooks. She found that those who used digital versions of unfamiliar material needed to read the same information several times to gain the same level of knowledge as those that used print. People who read print books also more fully digested, and understood, the material.
The success of tablets will come down to the apps. Apple and Google offer over millions of choices, giving educators a challenge to curate the best, and most appropriate, for their curriculums.
“Some of this material can be dry and repetitious, but the technology makes it come alive,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “Students need to be able to test and fail.”
Tablets have motivated students to continue the learning at home, too, and digital tools, like a glossary of terms, or the ability to find content to support a book report, help to streamline that trial-and-error process, he added. It also builds confidence in students, not to mention lightens their backpacks. Rabbi Schwartz said tablets, which are monitored, also helps him to keep a better eye on, and actually lowers, cyber-bullying, too.
Rabbi Schwartz is looking ahead to music and art apps, which he believes can stimulate both the left and right sides of the brains to further spark learning.
“Before, my ideas and those of my colleagues were in a bubble,” he said. “That’s the gift of the Kohelet foundation and as the keeper, and I want to show them we are good stewards, taking it to the next level.”
Apple gave the SmartSchool program an educational discount, so the investment cost about $850,000, but future upgrades could cost up to $2 million more, Cohen told me. But Apple sent professionals to train its faculty, and an in-school consultant is a big advantage, since it gives a unified approach across its schools, grades and religious education.
“Every school has own philosophy or flavor,” Cohen said. “The training is so consistent; it is really elevating.” As a result, she added, its faculty enthusiastically embraced changes to their classrooms.
The Collaborative scheduled open house meetings to keep parents in the loop, and Apple representatives demonstrated the iPads, and answered any questions related to devices, apps, and how they benefit education. Parents had legitimate concerns on security and keeping the spirit of the religious curriculum, Cohen said, but overall, they understood that iPads enhanced the classroom experience.
Omnicomp CEO Harvey Mindel made the devices educational-ready by stripping unsafe or inappropriate activity. It removed the Safari browser, for example, and added a student-safe alternative with alerts if students try to view blocked sites.
“For the first time ever, we had an opportunity to raise infrastructure and commitment with a legitimate budget,” Mindel told me. “We surveyed all nine schools to get a complete picture and devise a specific formula for each. This wasn’t a ‘just add water’ solution.”
His team also added a “high-density” network that doesn’t drop devices, giving students continuity in the classroom. But the cornerstone of the service is an application control, which watches which programs run on the devices.
“One of the biggest challenges across nine schools is the different philosophy and different levels of religious observance,” Cohen said. “The goal is to keep children protected,” and when it comes to making a content or access decision, “we are all aware of what is good and bad.”
Kellman Brown sees a day when technology can be integrated into office functions, like grading and report cards, back-office operations, and even cafeteria lunch ordering. ♦