Can iPads for all students boost learning?

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2014 - 6:14 PM

Next year, St. Paul will become the largest district in the state to try.

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A kindergartner worked on an iPad in a special education classroom at Moss Hill Elementary in Trent, N.J.

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Within the next two years, all St. Paul public schools student are expected to have their own iPads on which to do their school work. Late last month, school leaders decided to abandon a partnership with Dell and become the largest district in the state to provide all students with the Apple tablets.

It remains to be seen if the technology will make a difference in student achievement. Research from other schools and districts that have turned to technology to boost learning is mixed.

While some around the country have reported improvements in various academic areas, others have found that putting tablets in the hands of students does not significantly affect grades or test scores.

Just last month, Education Week reported on research that found reading comprehension suffers with the use of digital devices. Students are inclined to skim when reading digitally, the studies indicated, and they remember fewer details.

There are other advantages, however, and on balance it makes sense to put kids on equal footing in terms of access to technology. That can be especially valuable in districts with a wide range of household incomes.

For schools, tablets can save money on textbooks and other materials, and they can make it more efficient to interact with students and families. And some studies show that the interactivity engages students in ways that other teaching tools have not.

St. Paul school officials said the iPad distribution would begin in half of the district’s schools this fall and cover all students in the 2015-16 school year. The move to iPads is a change in the approach the district described in 2012, when school leaders asked for and won voter approval of a $9-million-per-year technology initiative.

The intent at that time was not to supply devices, but rather to create a Facebook-like Web page through which teachers and students could interact — with the goal of giving students the power to learn anytime, anywhere.

But the district and Dell failed to develop that platform, citing problems with integrating the district’s primary student data center with Dell’s system. The computer company agreed to refund the $665,000 it has been paid in credits for future technology upgrades. Instead, the district will outfit students with iPads that will be school property. Younger students likely will use them only at school, while the older kids will be able to take them home.

Matt Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer, said the district does not yet have an estimate for the cost of the iPads, which likely will be leased from Apple through a Minnesota Department of Administration arrangement. He said that by redeploying resources to provide all students with devices, the district is capitalizing on advancements made in the use of iPads in schools. In other words, the district is learning from mistakes made by others.

Los Angeles is believed to be the largest district to try an all-student iPad program. That $1 billion effort ran into problems that have pushed back its systemwide rollout to 2015, about a year later than planned. The district has had problems with students hacking the devices to use them for nonschool purposes, and it also has suffered from some losses and thefts.

St. Paul school officials say they are studying those problems and ways to address them. Mohs said that the devices will have kill switches rendering them unusable for thieves.

A number of Minnesota schools, including the Spring Lake Park and Farmington districts, have provided iPads to most students. Spring Lake Park and Farmington also have joined forces on a project to share resources and strategies on how best to use technology in daily learning.

Still, no matter how well prepared St. Paul school leaders think they are, implementation will be a work in progress — given how rapidly technology changes. That means careful, consistent monitoring of how effectively the devices are used.

Another key element of a successful program will be teacher training. Passing out electronics to kids won’t help them much if their classroom educators know little about how best to use them. Introducing iPads systemwide offers tremendous opportunities, as well as difficult challenges. Undoubtedly, a certain amount of trial and error will be involved.

In the end, we agree with the advocates on this point: iPads are tools — just like other classroom materials — that should enhance and supplement classroom learning. Educating students still needs to be directed and guided by teachers who know their students and who best understand how technology can help them.

  • Change of plans

    “I think one of the hardest decisions, as a person responsible for a project, is to say, ‘I think we have to switch directions. … The money that was spent with Dell has been refunded, and that, I think, is an important part of this story.”

    JEAN O’CONNELL, a school St. Paul school board member who helped lead the 2012 technology levy campaign, said in support of shifting the resources to supply students with iPads.

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