City schools to push digital learning

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Charlottesville City Schools have decided to embrace the uncertainty that comes with adopting new technology on a large scale as they implement the use of tablet computers in the classroom this year.

The funding scheme for the tablet computer plan pools money from different chests to accomplish a dramatic overhaul. Overall, it will cost the division $780,000 to launch, and its four-year maintenance contract will amount to $540,000 per year.

Ned Michie, a city School Board member since 2004, wasn’t afraid of the decision.

“Textbooks are going to go away,” Michie said. “Could we wait five more years? Sure, we probably could. But we were able to put together the money to do this initiative now, and I think sooner is better than later.”

City school officials will soon ink a deal to purchase 1,932 Windows 7 tablet computers for the coming school year, with the aim of every student in grades six-12 using one by the end of the year. Teachers, meanwhile, were given iPads in June and granted the summer to get acquainted with the devices.

Charlottesville High students will be allowed to take their tablets home, while Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary students will hand theirs in at the end of each school day. Tablet deployment will start at Charlottesville High in October, and if all goes as planned, it will continue at Buford and Walker in November.

Before this fall, city teachers could reserve laptop carts for when their classes needed Internet access. According to Llezelle Dugger, vice chairwoman of the School Board, the tablet plan is “the logical next step.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but laptops are becoming outdated,” Dugger said. “Technology has moved on from the laptop initiative we were talking about several years ago. It’s easier for our kids to carry a tablet than a laptop.”

The funding scheme for the tablet computer plan pools money from different chests to accomplish a dramatic overhaul. Overall, it will cost the division $780,000 to launch, and its four-year maintenance contract—which includes software and licensing fees and infrastructure up-keep—will amount to $540,000 per year, according to the schools’ director of technology, Dean Jadlowski.

Not many school divisions in Virginia—or in the country, for that matter—have implemented such an extensive computing plan. As the rollout approaches, the question becomes: Is the division moving too fast, with too large of an investment in a tool still in its exploratory phase, or will the bold plan become a successful model for other districts?

A transformative tool

With a tablet’s touch screen, students can manipulate maps and diagram math and chemistry equations, providing interactivity from their desks that laptops cannot offer. Also, tablet batteries last seven to 10 hours longer than laptops, making it less likely that students will interrupt teachers with power problems.

As for the direct effect on learning, students are more engaged in classwork when using their tablets, according to Radford University education professor Matt Dunleavy, who led a recent study for the Virginia Department of Education that evaluated iPad use in four Virginia schools. Through his observations and interviews, it became apparent to Dunleavy that students were more rapt with tablets, most likely because of their comfort level—and interest—involving all things digital, he said.

Tablets also allow students to instantly gauge what they know, at their own pace. With them, students don’t have to wait for their teachers to correct and return tests that assess basic skills and knowledge. Digital games, puzzles or quizzes immediately evaluate students, and those who are quick to grasp a concept can move to a higher difficulty level without having to wait for the rest of the class, Dunleavy noted.

“The instant, one-on-one feedback is powerful,” he said. “Cognitive science tells us that the quicker the feedback, the more relevant the feedback, and the greater the student achievement level and the greater the retention of information.”

In addition, tablets empower students to explore and research on their own, from their desk, so they can bolster an argument during a class discussion or answer a question they might not want to ask in front of the entire class. Of course, allowing students to follow their own paths of inquiry from their seats might send them down what Dunleavy calls a digital rabbit hole.

“We’ve all done this to some extent—wasting time on a stupid YouTube video that is not related to our work,” he said.

To combat this time-wasting, Dunleavy suggests that teachers employ good old fashioned management techniques, such as offering clear directions that give structure to a digital activity and outline specific learning goals.

“I think we need to guard against the idea that these tablets are somehow radically changing instruction,” the education professor said. “They are radically changing students’ access to information, and they have the potential to radically shorten the feedback loop. But I don’t think it’s going to change how teachers should be teaching. Teachers should be on top of their students at all times, whether there are computers in the classroom or not.”

Too large, too soon?

Even with its immense upside, the tablet computer is still a new educational tool, prompting some to call to question the scale of the city schools’ plan.

“I’m not sure if large-scale implementation is the way to go,” Dunleavy said. “I would encourage people to be conservative in the beginning with a small-scale pilot involving teachers who you know will be comfortable exploring the uses of the iPad.”

Moreover, definitive evidence does not yet exist proving that the use of advanced technology improves student achievement. Some recent studies, however, are promising. Henrico County’s 2001 plan showed that ubiquitous computer use does make an impact. According to a three-year study done by the e-learning firm Interactive Inc., Henrico’s laptop plan resulted in higher test scores in biology, history, chemistry, reading and earth science.

“A body of literature does show that there is a positive correlation between the presence of technology and achievement,” Dunleavy said. “That doesn’t mean technology is causing that higher achievement.”

In fact, some within the education realm feel technology has been oversold and underused. According to members in this camp, too many school officials naively think that by infusing the latest tech gadget into curriculum, instructional magic will somehow occur. Studies have definitively proven, however, that skilled teachers directly instigate higher student achievement, and so—the argument goes —education money is better spent on developing teachers’ skills, not on the latest gizmo.

While part of this argument has merit, according to Dunleavy, it also has flaws.

“You can’t sit and wait for a bulletproof study,” he said. “If we do, no one will try. It’s fundamentally flawed to think that we have to wait for a standardized test increase to rationalize the use of these tools.”

Michie and Dugger agree. The main way that today’s students engage with the world is through the Web and digital devices, they said, so why deprive them of those things during the school day? Also, by acclimating students to tablets and teaching them to effectively navigate the digital world, the school division is preparing them for the workforce.

“Most jobs you can think of now require some interaction with a computer,” Michie said.

School officials also decided to launch such a large-scale computing plan, Jadlowksi said, so that students are introduced to digitized learning early and then gradually build their skills as they move through school.

“The further ahead we are in using these tools in the early grades, the more advanced [students] will be when they come to high school,” Jadlowski noted.

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