It can speak Japanese, record hand-written chemistry calculations, build a slide presentation for history class and download a textbook in an instant.
The iPad is transforming the way instruction is delivered in Bethel School District’s high school classrooms.
In an ambitious project that eventually will cover all 18,000-plus students in the district, every high school student was given an iPad this year.
That’s nearly 1,200 devices at Spanaway Lake High School, nearly 1,300 at Bethel High School and more than 1,100 at Graham-Kapowsin High School. Students at Challenger, the small alternative high school, received iPads last year and are using them again this year. So are selected grade levels at a few other schools.
Next school year, every middle school student will receive iPads, and there are eventual plans to distribute iPads to elementary students.
Other Pierce County school districts are also aiming for so-called 1:1 status — an electronic learning device in the hands of every student. Others, including Tacoma, are experimenting on a smaller scale.
Research on whether 1:1 improves student achievement is mixed. Many say the key is good teacher training.
The small Dieringer School District near Lake Tapps, with just three schools, began its 1:1 quest last year with eighth-graders. This year, all students at the middle school have Lenovo laptops that convert to tablets. Some fourth- and fifth-graders have a smaller version of the same device.
Dieringer third-graders will have Chromebooks soon. Teachers asked for them so students would be better prepared for online state testing.
“The goal is to have 1:1 access for students in grades three and above,” said Dieringer Superintendent Judy Neumeier-Martinson. Her district plans to hit that goal by fall of 2016.
In Bethel, each iPad (including protective case) costs the district just over $400. By October, Bethel estimates it will have spent $2 million purchasing and equipping the devices. An additional $325,000 was spent on wireless upgrades for schools.
Most funding for Bethel’s iPad project comes from the district’s technology levy, approved by voters last year. It will generate $4.5 million annually for each of four years. Like Bethel, Dieringer passed a technology levy in 2014. It will generate an estimated $1.7 million a year over the same four-year period.
Superintendents in both districts hope voters continue supporting classroom technology.
“They know our kids need to have exposure to technology to be employable,” Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said.
Adds Neumeier-Martinson: “The fact that our community passed this levy means that they want our kids to have what they need for their future.”
DIGITAL FREEDOM, CHALLENGES
Bethel students are expected to keep the iPads for three years before they need replacing due to changes in operating systems and other upgrades.
“The (initial) investment is big, but over time, the payoff is great,” says Melissa Munson-Merritt, a teacher on special assignment as a technology specialist.
Bethel educators say the tablet devices can enrich instruction while saving teacher time and money spent on copying. Students can go online for research right in the classroom rather than waiting to schedule time in a computer lab shared by an entire school.
Textbooks, often out of date as soon as they’re printed, can be updated easily and downloaded as e-books, which often cost less. Students can take screenshots of pages, take notes and highlight passages right in the textbook, and look up unknown words as they read.
For Mariana Vargas, a freshman at Spanaway Lake High School, the iPad has been a time saver.
She doesn’t have a computer at home, so it gives her freedom to work on class writing assignments on her schedule, rather than trying to complete them at school or finding a ride to a public library.
Mason Ensminger, a Spanaway Lake sophomore, said the tablet has been useful, but it can be frustrating and confusing as well.
Students who find the technology challenging may be the ones who benefit most from having it in their hands, district officials say.
While certain classes, such as engineering design or high-level video production, require the increased horsepower found only on desktop computers, teachers across disciplines are finding the iPad useful, educators say.
“We have kids who are collaborating, sending video and audio files,” said Michael Christianson, Bethel’s chief technology officer.
While auxiliary keyboards are available — about one for every three iPads — Christianson said most students don’t use them.
“They two-finger everything, and they are fast,” he said.
TOOLS NOT TOYS
Bethel has implemented controls to encourage students to see their iPads as tools rather than toys.
Objectionable online material is blocked, and students are warned that if they download an app that’s not school-approved, their device will lose functionality. Teachers can control which apps students use during class time.
If iPads are lost or destroyed, students can be assessed a fine just as if they have lost or destroyed a textbook. Parents can purchase insurance through the district.
Christianson said most parents welcomed the introduction of iPads, though a handful objected to their kids bringing them home. Those students will check their iPads in and out through the school library.
Bethel decided on iPads after testing several devices in a yearlong trial project. Various schools and classrooms tried Chromebooks, Surface tablets and iPads; teachers met weekly to talk about benefits and drawbacks of each platform.
“At the end of the day, while the Chromebooks were awesome for word processing and Internet research, the iPads allowed for more creativity and collaboration,” said Munson-Merritt.
Christianson said Apple, manufacturer of the iPad, offered more educational applications and resources for teachers. He said the iPad also can contain most content needed by a student without need for Wifi access, which many students lack at home.
Some teachers are proficient from the start, while others are just beginning to use iPads, Munson-Merritt said.
“Our focus still needs to be on good instruction,” Bethel assistant superintendent Jennifer Bethman said. But in a world where some kids start using technology as toddlers, “if we don’t start teaching in that world, we are going to lose our kids.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT 1:1
Other districts are taking a more cautious approach.
Tacoma voters also approved a technology levy in 2014 to generate $10 million annually for four years. But Tacoma chief information officer Shaun Taylor said Pierce County’s largest school district isn’t yet aiming for universal 1:1.
Still, he said Tacoma has implemented some projects on a test basis with promising results. Some classrooms at Manitou Park Elementary, Gray Middle School, Baker Middle School, Giaudrone Middle School and Mt. Tahoma High School are using 1:1 tablets this year.
“I support increasing the footprint of mobile devices in our schools, however to what extent is still to be determined,” Taylor said.
Research is mixed on whether 1:1 is the best approach. There are issues of both cost and sustainability. And some critics say too much technology in the classroom may be a distraction.
A report published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the international test known as the PISA, looked at test results and technology access in more than 30 countries with some surprising results.
Those countries with the heaviest classroom computer use saw the greatest declines in test scores between 2009 and 2012, according to the OECD report.
Somewhere between no technology and constant technology use lies a sweet spot, researchers believe.
“School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning,” said Andreas Schleicher of the Paris-based OECD. “Technology is never going to replace poor teaching, but it can amplify quality teaching and expand access to materials.”