“Saying ‘It’s not about the technology’ is like telling [Yo-Yo] Ma that ‘It’s not about the cello.’”
—Dean Shareski, educator
In November at Tech Forum Texas 2011 in Austin, keynote speaker Dean Shareski reminded us that “It’s not about the technology. Except when it IS about the technology.”
Westlake High School’s iPad pilot initiative is perhaps one of those cases—intended to explore how a new portable technology, in the hands of teachers and students, can affect teaching and learning. Will the iPad’s portability, ability to be personalized, and functionality impact its effectiveness in a school setting? In answering this question, so much depends on the purposes for which it is intended; the pedagogy accompanying its use; training afforded to teachers; the methods for implementing the new technology; and the tech support provided. By conducting 1:1 implementation in a pilot format, we are focused on these issues while we move through the process, keeping a close eye on what is working and what the impacts of the project are.
The iPad pilot began with just an idea. In the spring of 2011, Westlake principal Linda Rawlings and district technology coordinator Carl Hooker envisioned what could happen if Eanes ISD adopted iPads for teachers and some of the student body. Out of that and a fall 2010 iPad pilot conducted via our library was born the Westlake Initiative for Innovation (or WIFI), a pilot project for teachers interested in using iPads in their classrooms. (See Checking Out the iPad: A Pilot Project Tests the Hot New Tech Tool in the November/December 2010 issue of Internet@Schools, in print and online.)
To participate in the pilot, teachers had to complete a Google form application, describing how they anticipated using iPads in the classroom. Since the majority of teachers submitting applications taught upperclassmen, a decision was made to issue iPads (using technology bonds funding) to all 11th and 12th graders, as well as a few other students. To prepare for the implementation, all teachers were issued iPads during the summer and attended in-service sessions to become more familiar with the tool’s functionality. A trial rollout was done with a few students in the late summer to smooth out any kinks before actually “rolling out” the devices to the general student body as a whole. Also during the summer, a team of mentor teachers organized and planned fall in-service sessions around using various features of the iPad. And on Day 3 of school, in English classrooms across the building, iPads were issued to all of the students in the pilot. (Many of the details chronicling the common apps used, the method of distribution, and other technical details can be found on the blog for the pilot at http://eaneswifi.blogspot.com.)
To support the project from a hardware/software standpoint, an iPad help desk called the Juice Bar was set up in the library’s pre-existing cafe space and staffed part time by student mentors and district technology staff. (Students selected the name for the Juice Bar through a poll conducted via QR codes read by their iPads. Juice Bar stands for getting creative juices flowing or getting a charge on the iPad.) We’re redesigning the library cafe space to suit the creative purpose better, with more casual seating, bar seating at the window, and rolling mini-plexiglass idea boards. But it’s far more than the library space that’s being transformed, and one thing has quickly become obvious—the flexibility of the iPad as a tool has made it a go-to device for teachers and students.
At the most basic level, schoolwide use of the iPad has improved productivity—primarily because teachers are finding ways to do things paperlessly more often—saving the district money and saving teachers time. Teachers scan an assignment or save packets and readings as PDFs, post them on their websites, and then students open the documents in a PDF reader on their iPads. Several apps, including Notarize and Neu.Annotate, allow students to write directly onto a PDF file, save it, and then email it back. Teachers are able to grade the document using the same apps and, again, email it to the student. Other methods of online transfer include the app WebDAV Navt, which the school can set up to access student and teacher network folders, shared network spaces, or tools such as eBackpack, Dropbox, etc.
More significantly from a learning standpoint, it has spurred creativity as well because of the camera, video camera, and the apps that can be used for creative storytelling, video production, etc. For example, our American Sign Language (ASL) teacher is finding the iPad an invaluable tool since so much of her curriculum is visual. Students can now film one another signing or practicing homework, film her signing a lesson to the class, and create projects using Keynote to embed video of signing. Teacher Barbara Vinson relates, “The movie apps, Keynote and iMovie, have made ASL projects come alive in the classroom. The use of the camera has allowed me to give immediate feedback to a student in the classroom. The students can videotape their presentations in the classroom and then critique themselves.”
And because the camera is embedded in the device, projects that might have taken weeks in the past can be completed in a matter of days. Students in our French classes are using the iPad’s camera to videotape skits, our Environmental Science class is using the camera and an app called LeafSnap to document plants, and our student announcements are being filmed once a week via the iPad. Music, band, and art students are finding it a creativity tool as well; in fact, the Westlake band performed a number strictly with iPad instruments at the first football game of the year. Many other apps afford creative opportunities, such as Zapd, which is a blogging app that the AP Human Geography students are using to write blogs on natural hazards. At our recent workshop, Dean Shareski shared with teachers how to use the Fotolr Studio HD app to edit photographs and add text to create one-word stories. iPads also afford a great deal of accessibility for students with special needs. There are a variety of apps that students can use, many free or inexpensive, such as Tap to Talk or Dragon Dictation. The iPad also allows students with special needs the equity of access that other, more difficult devices might have not.
Classroom use of the iPads can impact instructional pedagogy as well. Teachers are having to learn to rethink their classrooms. Some are employing “flipped classrooms,” and others are realizing, as Westlake collaborative education teacher Matt Zemo commented in a recent planning meeting, that it’s important to examine how tight (or engaging) their lessons are from one moment to the next because if students have the opportunity to be distracted, they might be. There are also all sorts of intangibles that are of interest, as IESE Business School–Barcelona assistant professor Evgeny Kaganer has pointed out about the university’s iPad pilot: “How does this [tablet device] affect team-based learning, social culture, collaboration. The critical thing is that it should go beyond delivering course materials” (http://tinyurl.com/Kaganer; http://tinyurl.com/ipadsinschls).
Impacts in the Library
In the library specifically, there have been a variety of impacts as well. For one thing, since the library is a student hang-out we’ve been able to observe student use of the iPad in a more natural setting—seeing what uses they are naturally gravitating toward. As the project goes on, we’ve seen more and more purposeful use, naturally—as teachers use these tools more and more in their classrooms and as students discover new apps, download books, set up their study lists, create or edit movies, etc. With students working even more collaboratively, we’ve defined some areas of the library more for “play” and exploration and others more for traditional study, and we are trying to refurnish them accordingly. Part of observing the process is rethinking the form and function of a space when students are using more mobile devices. We can’t think of the library as a storage space, but rather as an interactive creation center.
In terms of books, it’s evident that some students are downloading their own books or accessing classics for free. So it’s critical to add more ebook sources, roll out database apps, help students set up a “library” folder with all types of library sites on their own iPads, and constantly assess how the iPad pilot is affecting both our library space and our collection.
It’ll be interesting to see how the ebook model plays out for our library. With the boom in YA literature, our print fiction collection still circulates heavily, but the nonfiction use varies more. We have some ebooks already embedded in our catalog that are used occasionally, but we are also getting ready to roll out OverDrive, which allows the library to build a downloadable ebook collection specifically for the school, with books that can be circulated via an iPad app (or downloaded to other devices) and then returned to the library electronically. (OverDrive, Inc. is one of the only players in this market, other than the free Project Gutenberg collection of out-of-copyright items, and the iPad app is a convenient way for us to provide books for students. However, OverDrive’s pricing model is currently a little unwieldy for many schools, and its recent addition of Amazon titles for the Kindle platform has caused some privacy concerns. But like many ebook platforms, it is evolving frequently and may see changes that make it more affordable for schools.)
If ebooks can be embedded in the library catalog so students have one central location to access them, it makes for a more effective way to deliver them, whatever platform is used. For research purposes, databases such as EBSCO and Gale already have apps for the iPad, which makes these databases much more accessible to students. Students can also create a library folder on the iPad desktop, with the library’s website and catalog as links, a move that allows them easy access to the library from wherever they are. Having 1:1 mobile devices in a school really challenges libraries to sort out their role in information literacy instruction. With these devices, libraries can embed themselves more into the curriculum and function as technical support as well.
Gathering More Info
In order to better understand how student use of the iPad is evolving, students, parents, and teachers on our Vision Committee are studying the pilot carefully. (Students from The University of Texas–Austin and Texas State University–San Marcos are conducting a study on the iPad pilot as well.) The first local survey results have just been collected and show very positive impacts thus far. Overall, 88% of the 854 students surveyed report that using the iPad has enhanced their learning experience, and 90% reported that the iPad had a somewhat positive or positive effect on their motivation to learn. Eighty-nine percent reported that the iPad had a positive or somewhat positive impact on their “desire to dig deeper into a subject.”
Another thing our student survey is investigating is the distraction factor. Survey results are somewhat predictable—about half of students indicated they are somewhat distracted at school, but they are also indicating more distractions at home. But having a device with them in the classroom and at school every day is a teachable moment for our student body. Since we have a primarily college-bound population, many of our students will soon be sitting in college auditoriums filled with laptops and gadgets, and they will have to learn how to manage distractions. This pilot gives them an opportunity to learn to manage this kind of device as a learning tool in a somewhat smaller environment and with more guidance. As district technology coordinator Carl Hooker points out: “Students that have graduated from Westlake and move on to college say they felt prepared for the academia and the rigor by our system. However, they didn’t feel prepared when it came to managing their digital lives. The technology becomes a distraction to them in college because we didn’t really allow them to learn and focus within the same context. Giving students the ability to access information 24/7 is great, but giving them the ability to manage the distraction and utilize these tools for learning is even greater.” As student Arnab Chatterjee pointed out at a recent meeting, “It’s better students have this experience here rather than later affecting their opportunity to get or to keep a job.”
While they do cost financially, iPads are proving to save the district money in a number of ways. Of course, paper costs have been substantially reduced. Hooker documents some of the savings in a recent blog post (http://eaneswifi.blogspot.com/2011/10/swiss-army-knife-of-education.html), noting savings on document cameras, video cameras, still cameras, and newer mobile laptop carts. Even apps themselves are much less expensive than software we might have purchased for the same function. They are also saving teacher time—valuable this year when our budgets have been reduced, and teachers are tasked with more responsibilities. Having a common device, and being able to access email, grades, student documents and create lessons all portably, has really improved the workflow for teachers across the campus.
One of the questions the district faced initially was regarding personalization. While the iPad can work somewhat effectively as part of a “cart” setup, the most powerful use of the tool is as a personal device. So as a district, we chose to allow both students and teachers to make the devices their own and rolled out a limited set of consistent agreed-upon apps across campus. (We are using Apple’s Volume Purchase Program for additional apps that various departments or campuses need or want for their curriculum.) While this might pose a dilemma for some districts, it has created a tremendous sense of ownership as students and staff customize it for their own learning needs and classroom use.
Fostering a Climate of Exploration
Where is the pilot headed from here? We’ve been holding bimonthly after-school Appy hours in the Juice Bar to share apps with teachers (and students) and conducting biweekly “lunch ‘n’ learn” sessions for teachers to share. We’ve invited guest speaker Dean Shareski to conduct a workshop on digital storytelling that incorporated the iPad, and our Vision Committee is studying other schools that are also piloting iPads to see what we can learn from them. Decisions will be made this spring regarding extending the pilot to other grade levels, either at the high school or elsewhere in the district. Staff members at other district campuses are also starting to receive iPads, and some carts are being purchased at the elementary and middle school campuses. The district is assessing the need for parent workshops and more intensive teacher academies as well, as we begin to implement the devices on other campuses or grade levels.
One of the best things about the implementation of our particular pilot is how the teachers and students have been very much a part of the process—teachers planned and delivered the workshops before school; students, teachers, and parents who are members of the Vision Committee devised the survey and compiled it; students are serving alongside tech staff in the Juice Bar at the help desk; and there is a great deal of collaboration involved between staff and students in sharing apps. In general, the iPad lends itself to collaboration in ways that a laptop doesn’t, which fosters a great deal of sharing. The pilot has also created an exploratory climate on campus—as teachers, students, and administrators learn at the same time how to use the iPad and what it will mean for their teaching and learning. Perhaps that is the best benefit of all. And we have to continue to ask, as Globally Connected Learning consultant Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano asks, what is the difference between uses of the iPad that just automate processes and those with more transformative uses, such as differentiating curriculum or allowing for new forms of creativity and communication (www.scoop.it/t/ipad-lessons/p/657884656/ipads-in-education-part-2). When we all, students and teachers alike, ask these questions and become learners, we become real partners in this thing called education.
Carolyn Foote is a librarian at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, and a past presenter at Internet@Schools. She can be reached via her blog, Not So Distant Future (www.futura.edublogs.org), or her email (firstname.lastname@example.org).