Wendy Bloom’s elementary music classroom might not be the first place that comes to mind when someone mentions iPads or the concept of e-learning.
But the Haley Elementary School teacher has dozens of stories to share about student achievement when asked about what she can teach her students with the help of technology.
“If the kids are interested in what they are learning about, they get emotionally involved in, and then there’s this covert learning going on without them ever noticing it’s happening,” she said.
Student access to iPads, laptops or other devices varies among local school districts, but technology directors from all districts agree the topic comes up daily in discussions about the future of education.
When Bloom began teaching music more than 35 years ago, students learned concepts like music composition, the value of a quarter note and rhythm matching through in-class lectures and homework assignments.
But today, with the help of iPads and dozens of downloadable apps, her students can learn at the touch of a button – on a touch screen.
And in doing so, students begin to take ownership of their knowledge, Bloom said.
Bloom doubles as a technology coordinator for Haley Elementary, promoting and encouraging her co-workers to bring their subjects to life with the help of technology.
“We as educators, to be relevant, need to evolve right along with the trends and what is happening in technology to embrace this scenario of learning,” Bloom said, recalling a discussion from a technology conference she attended a few weeks ago at Warsaw Community High School.
Bloom said her students will notice some of what she learned this summer as soon as they return to the classroom.
Students at Fort Wayne Community Schools will return to class Monday.
Making the shift
The transition from textbooks to e-learning on devices like iPads and Nooks comes as no surprise for teachers who keep an eye on trends in student learning, Justin Vail said.
Vail, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Wabash Middle School, is the owner of Education Shift, a project geared at teaching teachers how to set aside textbooks and replace them with electronic learning.
“I was already sort of anti-textbook before we went one-to-one, but after we made the switch, having a textbook and paying for all of that, having student fees, it just seemed silly when the entire world’s resources are at your fingertips online,” he said.
Vail emphasizes the importance of one-to-one computing – a term used for putting an electronic device in front of every student – but also encourages districts that can’t afford devices for each student to make the most of technology in other ways.
“When a student has a device like an iPad, they have access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips,” he said.
Southwest Allen County Schools led the pack in implementing a one-to-one program for students.
In October 2011, the district issued laptops to every middle school student and continued to expand the program each year, Southwest Allen Associate Superintendent Philip Downs said.
The devices are available to all students in grades 6 to 12. Students at the district’s middle schools leave their devices at school, while high school students can opt to take them home.
Downs said some teachers and parents – especially when the one-to-one program was just beginning – expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the devices and wondered whether the district was rushing too fast to buy devices and software.
In response, Downs offered the same philosophy as other districts suggested – If teaching from a website instead of a textbook isn’t the best way to do it, then don’t.
“It’s great if that makes sense as the best way to do it, but we don’t want teachers forcing it. We want it to be something that makes sense,” he said. “The computer is a tool, but it’s a relatively new tool.”
‘Have to go slowly’
Fort Wayne Community Schools students have access to about 12,000 desktop and laptop computers and 5,000 tablets and each level – elementary, middle and high school – uses its devices differently.
“By and large, we are still using textbooks for all of our subject areas, but with some of them, there is online access to the books so students don’t necessarily have to take their books home,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
Stockman said most teachers in the district now have iPads but getting them into the classrooms is a gradual process.
“We have to go slowly to integrate all of this technology because we don’t have the funds,” she said. “Even if we wanted to jump into it and give everyone an iPad, it’s just not feasible.”
Unlike other districts, Fort Wayne Community has held off on bringing in thousands of devices for students until teachers and principals are prepared to show district officials how the devices can be used.
Students at East Allen County Schools are in their second year of a blended-learning initiative, said Keith Madsen, interim director of technology.
“At first, we got a lot of mixed responses from our teachers, some suggesting maybe they were not quite ready to make the change, but we had others who really dove right into it,” he said.
In the fall of 2011, the district’s more than 600 teachers were each issued an iPad for use in their classrooms and to take home for planning purposes.
Students in kindergarten through third grade have iPads for use in the classroom, one device for every four students.
Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders each received iPads, but the devices remain at the school in a cabinet to be used during the school day, Madsen said.
But students in grades 7 through 12 each have their own devices and have the option to take them home each day.
As the district began to make the switch to new devices, it invited parents to attend one of 10 meetings to talk about concerns or give feedback about the program.
“We had parents who had concerns, but we also heard a lot of positive feedback,” Madsen said.
One of the complaints from parents was that their students couldn’t seem to put down the iPad, even to sleep at night. To help curb the issue, parents were encouraged to take the devices away at a certain time and also learned how to set restrictions if students were misbehaving on the devices.
“Restricting a child on an iPad takes less than a minute,” he said. “That solved almost all of their concerns.”
Tax caps’ effects
Northwest Allen County Schools trails in the one-to-one initiative, largely due to the cost of implementing a program, Technology Director Adela Dickey said.
“We have a lot of technology in place, but we have not moved to a one-to-one program,” she said.
Dickey said that the continued loss of revenue as a result of state property tax caps is putting a kink in the district’s plan for adding iPads and laptops for students. The district loses more than $1 million each year in capital projects revenue – the fund that pays for construction projects but also school technology – because of property tax caps.
And paired with the need for more funding is the challenge of updating the district’s buildings and infrastructure to allow thousands of students to connect, Dickey said.
“We worry less about the infrastructure and devices and more about the curriculum and learning,” she said. “If we throw these devices out there without the proper preparation, it’s just frustrating for everyone and a waste of money.”
Between computers, laptops and iPads, the district owns more than 4,000 devices that students can access throughout the school day.
Finding what works
Over the summer, a group of Southwest Allen teachers worked together to create about 100 lessons using information from both paper textbooks and online resources, the district’s Downs said.
The group plans to share these lessons and other information with their colleagues during an in-service day.
Though most are adapting well to the use of electronic texts and resources, some teachers have said they’re fine with having laptops in classrooms but worried about parting with textbooks, Downs said.
His answer is simple – use both.
“In a few years, I think there will be less and less demand for the paper textbooks. As more students get comfortable using the computer, I think we’ll see less and less dependence on the textbooks,” he said. “But will we get rid of them? No. They’ll still be there as a tool.”
But as districts shift to electronic learning, schools won’t need to buy as many books, he said, and teachers will be able to get by with a classroom set.
“Books don’t typically go home as much as they used to, so they aren’t having to be replaced as often,” he said.