Technology

Implementing Tech Tools, Not Toys

Chicago Public Schools awarded grants for schools to implement the iPad, and will work to make sure the tablet helps to teach -- not entice.
by | August 17, 2010

The iPad is the hottest tablet to be carrying around. And soon, first and second graders at Burley Elementary School in Chicago will be carrying them around the classroom.

Burley, a literature and technology magnet within Chicago Public Schools (CPS), will use the iPads to differentiate instruction according to individual need, and encourage critical thinking through multimedia apps and collaborative tools. This could include using apps such as Question Builder, which helps elementary-aged children learn to answer abstract questions and create responses based on inference, and iWriteWords, which teaches handwriting.

Burley's first and second graders will use the iPads to take audio notes on class lessons, conduct interviews and produce their own multimedia projects. For example, the school's grant proposal says while second graders study forest communities, classes can take pictures of artifacts from nature, inspect them on the tablet, record observations and incorporate those images into multimedia presentations about the forest.

More than 20 Chicago schools will test iPads in the classroom this year, thanks to a mini-grant offered by CPS. Two hundred schools applied for the grants, valued at more than $20,000. Each grant includes 32 iPads, 1 MacBook Pro for syncing purposes, $200 in iTunes credit for applications and a storage cart for the hardware. As CPS implements this new technology into its instructional plans, it must navigate how to make sure it's an effective learning tool rather than an entertaining tech toy.

The expansion of technology in education -- and to government at large -- is widespread. Over the last several years, many colleges, universities and K-12 school districts, not to mention local and state agencies, have incorporated emerging technology like iPhones and Kindles into their daily lives. Adding the iPad is just an extension of this. City councils are considering the tablet as a way to cut down on paper costs resulting from printing meeting agendas and memos.

Incorporating new, up-to-the-minute technology, especially in education, sounds great. It's been said time and again that students should be taught in ways that they're comfortable -- and they're quite comfortable with technology. But to critics, technology might hurt more than help the ability to learn. One such critic of these new technologies in education is President Obama, who at Virginia's Hampton University commencement, said that with iPods and iPads, Xboxes and Playstations, "information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation."

Arshele Stevens, CIO for Chicago Public Schools, acknowledges that these kinds of technologies can, in fact, be distracting. The iPad, for instance, gives its users access to the Internet. "It could potentially mean that a child with an iPad who isn't supervised could use the Internet in a way that is not supposed to be used in the classroom, or they could be using it to play games," she says. "If it's unsupervised, it could just be a distraction -- for kids and adults."

Stevens says she believes that knowing how to implement and supervise iPad use in the classroom is key, which is what the CPS grants will help do. "I think if we try to focus [educators'] efforts ... then we can prevent a lot of the distraction that the device could cause," she says. Since teachers will differentiate and manage instruction via iPads, they will attend eight sessions of professional development to learn how to incorporate the iPads into classroom instruction.

"We're partnering with Apple to provide professional development and are creating a cohort of collaboration across the schools to share best practices and ideas," CPS Technology Education Director John Connolly said. "We're providing an initial training on how to use it, and then it's ongoing. That gets them going in the right direction of executing on their proposal."

Back at Burley, the initial plan is that the kids will only use the iPads in literacy centers, small areas in the classroom where students work alone or together to explore literacy activities while the teacher provides small-group, guided-reading instruction. This allows establishment of expectations and routines for using and managing the devices. Students will use this time to become comfortable with the devices, and to build sight-word recognition and phonemic awareness skills, likely using apps outlined by CPS that will improve literacy skills and increase self confidence. Once a routine is established, educators will continue literacy center work in the mornings and introduce the iPads in the afternoon, according to Burley's grant proposal.

As teachers introduce iPads to students, CPS's Information and Technology Services department will implement place assessments, measurements and evaluation tools that, as the year goes on, will enable CPS to evaluate how successful iPads are to each school. At the start of each school's program, students' proficiency is assessed in the area in which the iPads will be incorporated as part of the school's plan. And at the end, the students will be reassessed to see what effect the iPad had.

In developing the grant, Connolly developed a rubric -- grading criteria, so to speak -- to compare against all grant applications. The rubric looked at the project's overall quality, whether it aligned to standards, its overall assessment and evaluation plan, and its dissemination to colleagues. A panel of judges looked at all applications, and because the final winners were based on that rubric, Stevens says CPS is fairly certain the chosen programs will be impactful.

In the end, CPS aims to encourage additional schools that purchase iPads to use the lessons and best practices derived from this year's 23 trials, guiding them in making sure new technology is implemented as an effective tool. "We decided to take this in a new direction and try to help out the masses, and we think this is a great way to start," Stevens says. "It's a great project to help get our feet wet in lots of different areas."

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