By Linda Borg
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Step into the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts in South Providence and this is what you see: seventh graders using iPads to write essays, edit videos, practice their multiplication tables and e-mail their homework to teachers.
The iPad and other electronic tablets are quietly revolutionizing the way a handful of Rhode Island schools provide instruction, communicate with students and parents, and evaluate teacher performance.
West Warwick is about to pilot a Windows-based tablet program in two of its elementary schools.
Woonsocket offers dozens of online courses in everything from Mandarin Chinese to bioethics.
Providence is using the iPad to evaluate what teachers are doing in the classroom.
And the Rhode Island Association of School Principals is training educators from 15 public school districts on how to use the iPad in the classroom, in the central office and in special-education settings.
Because Trinity, a first-year middle school charter, only has 34 students and 6 teachers, it can afford to give an iPad to every student. At $500 from the school’s operating budget, the iPad is cheaper than a typical laptop, more portable, and, with its touch screen technology, easy to use.
At Trinity, the iPad has nearly eliminated the need for paperback novels. The school buys one book for $6 and downloads 34 copies. And there are many books in the public domain, such as the entire works of William Shakespeare, available free of charge. The potential for cost savings is considerable.
“When teachers say, ‘Get out your worksheet,’ I’m like, ‘OK,’ ” says 12-year-old Teri Thompson. “When they say, ‘Get out your iPad,’ I’m like, ‘Yes! The iPad!’ ”
“It’s not boring like when you have pen and paper,” says Jalixa Ramirez, another seventh grader. “Plus, it’s much easier to organize your work. You can save everything to a file.”
Sharon Hussey, the executive director of the Rhode Island Network for Educational Technology, calls the iPad a “transformational device” because of the way it allows students and staff to interact with a host of applications, from math games to streaming video.
“Students today are constantly around technology,” says Jennifer Patten, a seventh-grade history teacher. “That’s how they engage. The iPad heightens that engagement. It gives them access to a wealth of information that goes beyond the textbook and it allows them to be critical of what’s out there.”
Last week, students watched the Egyptian revolution develop in real time by watching live blogs and broadcasts from CNN and other media sources. “Students were able to see history unfold in front of them,” says Elizabeth Richards, the artistic director of Trinity, which is dedicated to the performing arts. “And this was a revolution which arguably began online.”
Trinity uses the iPad to foster a constant dialogue between students and teachers. A child can submit a homework assignment and get almost instant feedback. An essay can be revised several times with teacher input before it is submitted for a grade. If a student forgets his homework assignment, he can e-mail his teacher from home.
“It gives students safe, secure, unprecedented access to us,” Richards says.
Trinity has also created a math portal that allows parents to review their child’s homework assignments via the iPad or a personal computer.
Of course, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility.
That’s why Trinity has developed a detailed policy, signed by student and parent, which explains how the iPad can be used. For example, the use of social networking sites is prohibited. Students may only access the Internet through a specific application that filters out inappropriate material. And the iPad must never be left unattended.
“It’s like my baby,” Ramirez says. “I don’t let anyone take it from me.”
“So far,” Richards says, “we have had zero problems with broken iPads, zero problems with stolen iPads and zero problems with serious violations. The kids are rising to that level of responsibility. That’s what we as a school are about.”
Trinity also understands that the new technology is also about having fun. For Christmas, the school bought several game applications, including the wildly popular Angry Birds, for students.
And Trinity is constantly discovering unexpected ways in which technology enriches learning. Richards says that a student e-mailed her about a friend who was in a potentially unsafe situation at home. The school was able to address it immediately.
“The iPad doesn’t make or break what goes on in the classroom,” she says. “You still need dedicated teachers and a quality curriculum. But it’s a huge asset to increase the diversity of content in the classroom. And it puts at students’ fingertips some of the technology that is changing the way the world works.”
Although technology is expensive on any large scale, there is little doubt that school districts large and small are beginning to embrace it.
According to a recent study by Education Week, a national teachers’ magazine, 46 percent of public school districts offer distance learning over the Internet or through video conferencing and 53 percent use online curricula.
But there continues to be a gap between what teachers want and what they get. Although more than 80 percent of teachers surveyed said they would like to use technology in the classroom, 47 percent said that funding for such technology is inadequate.
In the meantime, some districts are harnessing the technology they already have.
In Woonsocket, high school students use videoconferencing to bring authors into the classroom, communicate with other schools, and share data. One day, students piled into the library to watch a surgery performed in real time.
But it is the district’s distance-learning program that has generated the most buzz.
Located in the Woonsocket Area Career & Technical Center, the E-Learning Academy offers 200 electives and 13 advanced-placement courses that students can take on school computers without sitting in class.
What began six years ago as a credit-recovery program has since morphed into a virtual high school that enrolls more than 500 students.
It has saved more than a few students from certain failure, says coordinator Michael Ferry. Last year, a sophomore walked into Ferry’s office and said, “I quit.” After talking with the young man, Ferry realized the student’s biggest problem was getting to school on time.
“Can you make it here for 10 a.m.?” Ferry said. The student said yes.
The student showed up every day and took two courses at a time. He went to summer school.
He kept asking, “Am I a junior yet?” and Ferry kept saying, “Keep taking courses.”
Last spring, he asked the same question. This time, Ferry said, “I’ve got some bad news. You’re not a junior. You’re a senior.”
The young man graduated in June.
“I call them my angels,” Ferry says. “There are 500 stories like this one.”
Not every student is cut out for the traditional high school. Distance learning is perfect for the young mother, the student who is struggling with English or the student who has to work to support his or her family. It also works for the teenager who is “school-phobic,” who can’t deal with 2,000 students and all of the attendant drama.
“Technology offers flexibility in scheduling and the ability to work anytime,” Ferry said. “We would never be able to service these kids face-to-face.”
Working with a company called Nova Net, the high school took the company’s online courses and aligned them with its own curricula. Ferry said that the students taking the online courses receive the same content as those taking the face-to-face classes. The beauty is they can work at their own pace.
Students use this program to make up credits, and Ferry says that 56 students graduated last year thanks to the opportunity. Students can also access the curricula from home.
In Providence, iPads provide a fresh take on the classic “learning walk.” In the past, principals have observed teachers and then scribbled their observations on a long worksheet. The iPad not only makes it much easier to complete the evaluations, it aggregates the data and helps schools identify strengths and weaknesses in each subject.
The observations are not a “gotcha” exercise, however. Rather, they are an attempt to collect feedback from individual classroom visits, collate the data, and spot trends. Are students engaged? Are teachers mixing up different styles of instruction? Does the student know what is being taught and why? Ultimately, the information will be used to give teachers feedback on how to refine instruction.
“It’s important that we look at what we’re doing,” says Lenora Goodwin, an AP environmental-science teacher at Central High School. “I have good days and bad days, but I know that in the end I’m moving my kids along.”
This article was originally posted at http://www.projo.com/news/content/new_school_technology_02-21-11_MCMH38V_v32.1940e6d.html