Midlands area school districts are rolling out their most ambitious technology programs yet as the 2012-2013 school year opens, aiming to put tablets and laptop computers in the hands of more students even as they develop new teaching strategies to complement them.
There is no question administrators find themselves in the midst of a technology sea change, a moving-at-the-speed-of-light revolution that may signal the end of the textbook-burdened student even as it raises questions about how and what students are learning.
“I think the prospects of technology in education are very exciting and the concerns are understandable,” Abe Wandersman, a USC professor of psychology, said Friday. He is working in partnership with Richland 2 to determine how student performance is affected by the introduction of the new devices.
Richland 2 is entering phase two of its 1 TWO 1 computing program, distributing Apple iPad tablets and Google Chromebooks to fourth and seventh graders and to a second wave of high school students. Students at the district’s newest high school, Westwood, will leave many of their textbooks at home and do their work on Chromebooks, as will students at Richland Northeast.
Lexington 1, which provided laptops to all its high school students last year, is expanding its computer initiative to middle schools this year. And the private Hammond School became the first independent school in South Carolina to deliver iPads to its entire 900-plus student body, from pre-kindergarteners to seniors.
Richland 1 is continuing its implementation of mobile iPod and iPad labs, while Heathwood Hall Episcopal School is embarking on a pilot iPad program for 7th graders. Ben Lippen School, a private Christian school on the campus of Columbia International University, has issued iPads to its students in grades 6-12.
In Kershaw County, ninth graders are receiving new iPads, 10th graders are receiving mini-notebooks and 11th and 12th graders are receiving laptops. And in Lexington-Richland 5, high school teachers received iPads this year in anticipation of a rollout to high school students in 2013-14.
“It’s a very ambitious initiative to try to integrate technology into education and it is not just about giving students iPads or Google Chromebooks,” Wandersman said. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg and the catalyst for how education is taught and received by students.”
Wandersman, who leads a six-member university team, plans to make a presentation to the Richland 2 board Aug. 28 on the findings of the 10-month project, which will include an analysis of academic outcomes as well as an assessment of how students rank in terms of collaboration, creativity and digital literacy. Knowing how and where to obtain solid data from the internet is crucial, he said.
A little skepticism
At Hammond, administrators spent more than two years studying the best technology strategy for the school. The advent of the tablet and the digital textbook made their path more clear, officials said.
Headmaster Chris Angel met with Apple’s K-12 team, visited Apple headquarters and researched schools that had used the new technology.
“Part of this was realizing that this is 21st century technology and this is how students are learning today,” said Cissy Pope, a Hammond spokeswoman. “This group has been brought up using smart phones, hand-held devices and laptops. We were teaching in the way we were taught and not in the environment they were living in.”
But some parents, particularly those who have witnessed the lure of Angry Birds and other game apps on their offspring, remain skeptical about what the newest technology will deliver in terms of serious learning.
“I’m so far removed from technology that I wonder what they are going to be used for,” said Kevin Asbill, whose three children attend Hammond and now have their iPads in hand. “Maybe I’m old school, but I’m a big fan of notebook paper and pencils.”
Asbill, like other parents who have trouble weaning their children from video games, worries that the iPad could be just another screen distraction and not an introduction to seat-of-the-pants learning. Angel, the headmaster, has tried to alleviate those concerns by reminding parents of the cutting-edge capabilities of the new technology.
“There is a major difference between a student reading a static textbook, looking at photographs of a cell dividing versus seeing the interactive video, and having a Nobel Prize winner explain the process of cellular division to the students,” Angel said in the school’s introductory iPad video. “It is a much more interactive process that allows hands-on learning to take place across the curriculum and brings the content to life.”
Tom Cranmer, Richland 2’s executive director of IT, said the district has fielded similar concerns from its parent advisory group, but administrators have made it clear the devices will be used to enhance teaching rather than substitute for it.
“This is not an environment where kids are sitting in front of computer devices all day,” Cranmer said. “We know that our teachers are going through intense staff development to understand the design of instruction.”
‘A real game-changer’
Districts such as Richland 2 have stepped up professional development to ensure teachers are fully trained on the devices.
Angie Hill, a chemistry/lead teacher at Blythewood High School, is one of 20 Richland 2 teachers who spent two years in training to learn not only how to use the various computer devices but how to be specific in determining how technology can enhance instruction.
“I think what I learned out of that intensive training is how to actually use the technology,” Hill said Friday. “It has to be very purposeful when you choose to use it in the classroom.”
Some instructors have come to realize that their students are more technologically savvy than they are and eager to embrace learning on gadgets they love. But Hill said educators have a role to play in broadening students’ tech horizons.
“We are trying to teach students to use the technology for more than Facebook and Twitter,” Hill said. “They don’t necessarily know how to be productive using the technology.”
Still, technology seems to come easy to this generation of kids.
Edward Brantley, an 8th grader at Hammond, had mastered his iPad before even attending an orientation session led by Eben Trobaugh, Hammond’s middle school choral teacher and certified Apple trainer.
“For most of his friends, the transition was seamless,” his mother, Ashley Brantley, said. She’s happy her older daughter, 11th grader Elie, no longer has to tote a heavy backpack that weighed half what she did, although she said Elie still likes using a hardcover textbook. Younger daughter, Eliza, 11, a 6th grader, also had no problem familiarizing herself with the device.
“This is a real game-changer for students,” said Gloria Talley, Lexington 1’s chief academic officer. “It is a tool that they are already familiar with, and it has leveled the playing field so that anytime, anywhere learning can take place.”
Lexington 1 began its pilot project in 2010 at Gilbert High School by distributing laptops for student use. That same year, Apple Inc. introduced the iPad, which for many school systems has proved an irresistible elixir of technological wonders.
And while Lexington 1 plans to distribute iPads to middle school students this year, Talley noted, “We have never focused on the device; we have just focused on 21st century tools for learning.”
Lexington 1 was able to purchase the computers after voters in 2008 approved a bond referendum that included $15 million to expand and upgrade existing technology. Richland 2 upgraded its wireless infrastructure for up to $7.89 million using general obligation bonds approved in its 2008 bond referendum.
Heavy textbooks will not be relegated to the dust bin yet, although Kershaw County teachers are piloting a project to use the iPad as the textbook in algebra classes.
Issues of theft and misuse have been rare, school districts report.
“We have just been amazed,” Lexington 1’s Talley said. “Our students really care for their devices. I think we were smart that when we rolled out the project we researched” strong, quality protective covers. “Honestly, it is like their cell phones. They protect those because they need them.”
Edward Brantley, the Hammond 8th grader, said financial repercussions also figure into how he safeguards his iPad.
“I don’t want to pay $50,” he said, which is what Apple will charge the students the first time it breaks.
“That’s a home discussion, too,” his mother said.
Reach Click at 803 771-8386.