Tablets Lead Charge in Classroom Innovation

The iPad has come a long way since its introduction in 2010, and now it's showing up in schools as an instrument of innovation.

The technology is finding its use in different ways around the state. On the K-12 side, some notable examples come from two schools in poverty-stricken areas south of Jonesboro.

In Cherry Valley in the Cross County School District, all students in kindergarten through second grade have access to iPads, which travel between classrooms on Apple Learning Labs.

The labs are wheeled carts about the size of filing cabinets. Each can charge and sync up to 30 iPad devices and can also hold a MacBook computer.

Apple also has a similar product for MacBooks, which holds 20, and for iPods, which holds 40.

Click here for a sidebar on how some schools are using e-books.

Superintendent Matt McClure said Cross County was the only "1-1" school district in the state, which means one computer per every student. The elementary school has about 350 students, with 75 percent of them qualifying for free or reduced lunch. It was also recently converted into a charter school.

McClure said iPads offered greater convenience and mobility than the standard computers. "We had computers in every K-2 classroom before," he said. "It wasn't as versatile. It was kind of cumbersome. The desk took up a whole lot of area."

Apple has a wide variety of applications for school subjects, McClure said, and the 1-1 system means any student can use them. "It's an equalizer," he said. "It puts all kids on the same level. That's why we think it's important."

Click here for a sidebar on apps popular in K-12 classrooms.

Eventually, McClure said, the entire school may have access to iPads. Using them in higher grades can be difficult, he noted, because many of the team-based classes those students are taking require the use of keyboards, which is a weakness for iPads.

Middle school students are using iPads at the neighboring Harrisburg Middle School, where poverty also runs deep.

Principal Karli Saracini brought iPad carts into Harrisburg Middle School at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. Saracini is a leader at the Arkansas chapter of the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership, which meets in Little Rock each year. There, she learns about and presents on emerging technology in the state. She wanted to let the students use new technology in an environment where it's frequently prohibited.

"When they walk through the door, they have to turn off," she said. "We've got to start putting something back."

The school has carts for the iPads as well as iPods. The iPods can be used as translators, Saracini said, which is especially useful for the school's handful of Spanish-speaking students. The school has no teachers who speak Spanish, Saracini said.

Saracini's goal is to make sure the newest technology is available to her students. She said the school has three new carts and recently purchased 90 MacBook Airs. She noted one cart with 30 iPads costs about $20,000. According to Apple, the cart alone costs about $2,600.

Both Saracini and McClure said their schools were able to afford the carts using various grants.

Higher Education

The college field has been taking to tablet use in varying ways.

Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges, said community colleges are working on figuring out what to do once the $128 million Arkansas Research & Education Optical Network is completed in August 2013. When it's complete, all the state's community colleges will have access to dramatically faster Internet speeds.

Franklin said some of the schools' preparations involve introducing smartphones and tablets into the classroom. "It's the direction we're going, especially with younger folks," Franklin said.

The community college area is a bit different from four-year schools, Franklin said, since the students' average age is 28, meaning technology "immigrants" are just as common as technology "natives."

"It's a different challenge in terms of using some of those same tools," Franklin said.

The history department at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro is using iPads extensively in its secondary social studies teaching program.

Gina Hogue, director of the history department, said the school outgrew its Mac lab in fall 2010. At that point, Chief Information Officer Mark Hoeting offered to run a pilot study using iPads in the teaching program.

"We were experimenting," Hogue said. "This was a new technology with new applications for us. The students responded very positively."

The main program, Hogue said, has students learning to create multimedia presentations using iPad apps and then using the school-provided tablets in their own student teaching.

"And what is so exciting is we've started using FaceTime to supervise interns," Hogue said, referring to a popular app that provides video for phone calls. "Instead of physically visiting their classroom, we can connect remotely and observe just as if we were in the classroom. They don't know they're being observed; it's a more authentic observation."

Some students use their own iPads, Hogue said, but there are enough to allow everyone in the classes to rent one.

A 30-unit iPad cart in the history department has allowed students faster connections to the school's Wi-Fi network, giving them constant access to their digital sources, Hogue said. The students can then put their research together into visual presentations.

"Then they're able to present in class to their peers," Hogue said. "It has really created a very engaging learning environment."

The iPads beat out personal computers, Hogue said, because of their ease of use and ability to instantly connect with modular systems like QR codes. Plus, they're cheaper than regular laptops. "It's very convenient," Hogue said.

At Hendrix College in Conway, it's a different story.

"We are currently not using tablets in existing faculty classes," said David Hinson, the school's chief information officer.

But that doesn't meant the school isn't using tablets: For example, the school created an app that shows proper evacuation techniques for school emergencies, as well as provides updated lists of emergency and media contacts.

Meanwhile, the school recently hired Tim Lepczyk to help bring mobile technology to the forefront in classrooms. Lepczyk said he's in a planning stage, trying to understand the faculty needs and requirements.

Hinson said the school hasn't jumped quite as eagerly onto the iPad bandwagon because of some logistical problems.

"There are some strengths and weaknesses to tablets in classrooms," Hinson said. For example, iPads can use Apple TV to remotely display video on a larger screen. But the system needs a Wi-Fi signal to work, and the school's Wi-Fi network won't always be available. Plus, connecting the iPad to the video equipment with a normal cable eliminates the mobility of the iPad.

Basically, the school just needs to figure out how it can use the technology.

"The first part of our job is listening to what our faculty is trying to accomplish," Hinson said. "Then trying to sit and marry the right technology with the right pedagogy."