Sandburg Elementary School principal Brett Wilfrid has heard the rap on iPads in schools and he says success in using the technology in classrooms lies in careful consideration for how they are used.
The school on Madison’s far east-side has been working over the past three years to put an iPad in the hands of virtually every student between second and fifth grades, as well as each staff member, becoming a leader in adoption of technology in the Madison Metropolitan School District.
“We want Sandburg to be a place where we pride ourselves on providing 21st century education with all students having access to excellent technology that prepares them for a future in the workplace and teaches them responsibility to use it well,” Wilfrid said in a recent interview.
The experience of Sandburg Elementary will help inform a district-wide policy on the use of technology in the classroom that Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham says she hopes to bring to the school board in January.
The introduction of tablet computers to classrooms in one-to-one programs across the U.S. has been controversial, ramping up as another facet of the red-hot debate over school reform and the privatization of education.
The superintendent of the Los Angeles County Unified District this week announced plans to put the brakes on a $1 billion program to give an iPad to every student in the nation’s second-largest school district, slowing down its rollout after high school students hacked the system to get to games and social media sites.
Teachers have been skeptical of major investments in the technology at a time when strapped school districts are pinching teacher pay increases. Said the teachers union president in Manhattan Beach, Cal.: "By going out and spending money on technology that will continually need to be updated and repaired, the technology cost starts to really add up. I understand it's a tool to help out, but the bottom line is highly effective teachers are worth more than an iPad."
An article last month in the New York Times magazine explored the experience of a North Carolina district with a program providing one-to-one tablets and curriculum through Amplify, division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation whose CEO declared K-12 education “ripe for disruption.” This month the district announced suspension of the program because of problems with the equipment. Meanwhile a Texas school district dropped plans for an interactive science program after a consultant cited unrealistic goals, insufficient planning and inconsistency with district curriculum development standards.
Noted education reform critic Diane Ravitch comments that these problems are a result of the current educational climate.
“Vendors are eager to make sales and make big promises," wrote Ravitch on her blog. "Districts are eager to show that they are ahead of the times, and have bought the latest, best technology. But for the technology to be effective, there must be planning, forethought, teacher buy-in. But more than that, the content of the tablets must allow for teacher creativity, not teacher scripting."
At Sandburg Elementary in Madison, the initiative to put iPads in the hands of students at a school with more than 72 percent low-income students and nearly 44 percent of students with limited English language proficiency meant diverting federal funds that could have been used to hire supplemental staff. Wilfred put the cost at $175,000 over the past three years, including a $45,000 grant from the school district.
The school has been careful and deliberate about use of the tablets, and has learned from missteps in past years like allowing the kids to use the cameras on the iPads, leading to an awful lot of photos being taken.
Students now are limited to seven educational apps, and earn access to other applications by demonstrating responsible use of the iPad, Wilfrid said.
“We realized that if everything we do is aligned to our core purpose and the Common Core standards, we don’t need that many apps,” he said. Tying iPad privileges to responsible behavior aligns with the school’s emphasis on character development.
Teachers and students like the devices and find them productive, according to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Madison Teachers Inc. has not taken a position on use of the devices, said president Peggy Coyne. She is impressed, however, by how motivating they are to students and teachers, she said.
“Probably every teacher would like to have a class where they are at their disposal,” said Coyne, who adds she is just learning to use one.
Parents are proud of student accomplishments, like the group who made a presentation this week to a national conference of educators on the use of tablets by English language learners, Wilfrid said. But parents have been concerned, too, that their children not spend the entire day on an iPad.
No one wants that, Wilfrid stressed. And in practice, teachers most expert in using iPads routinely have students set them aside to allow for dialogue with eye contact.
Tablets are a tool, Wilfrid said, that can assist teachers in the complex process of, for example, helping a child learn to read, a process that depends on give-and-take between teacher and student.
“It’s not possible to replace a teacher with a device,” he said.
Cheatham said the district’s technology policy will reflect a “very smart” use of what’s on the market.
“In technology, as in other education reforms, there are sometimes things that are trendy — people like to jump on the bandwagon — and we definitely want to avoid that approach,” she said.
But students use technology outside the classroom, and will be expected to be proficient on several platforms when they graduate, so it would be odd if the only place they weren’t using technology were in the classroom, Cheatham said. “So we need to modernize.”
The technology plan is being developed with assistance from local experts, state education officials, educators at UW-Madison, and district teachers, principals and students, she said.
Cheatham wouldn’t say much about what might be included or what the working budget would be, except that the $1.5 million the district now spends on technology for instructional and staff use, including software, hardware and maintenance is not enough.
Cheatham said she has been impressed by the potential of well-used technology like tablet computers to provide challenging content to students and remove barriers to those who are English language learners or have a learning disability like dyslexia, to cite two examples.
“I think this is a real opportunity to create an environment that is challenging and accessible for all students, that should be the driving force in our decision-making,” she said.
Cheatham didn’t rule out purchase agreements with corporations that might include content as well as devices, but stressed again that student needs should drive what the district purchases.
“Our hope is to create some parameters around technology, with some flexibility from school to school,” she said.