The high school students in Tim Hall's AP World History class at Franklin Academy whirled through the Middle Ages this month on their 1.5-pound, $500 iPads.
After reading through a digital textbook, students got a fast-paced visual tour of Gothic architecture, the feudal system and the Crusades. All on their trendy tablet computers.
"You just have to get used to it," student Jordan Dunne said, "and you have to check your battery life."
The Wake Forest charter school began its experiment with iPads this fall, when it bought 10 for the AP class. Leaders have been so happy with the results, they recently made plans to order 20 more.
IPads, notebook computers and mobile devices are destined for the classroom on a much bigger scale. But questions remain about how successful they will be in widespread use.
"Our kids are telling us, 'This is how we learn. This is what we want,' " Durham Public Schools Superintendent Eric Becoats said. "You can actually dissect a frog on the iPad. That was amazing to me."
Durham will spend $3.5 million to put Apple iPads in the hands of students and teachers at two low-performing schools. The money, from the federal Race to the Top grant, will be used for equipment, training and technology facilitators.
But Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit education policy think tank, doesn't see iPads as a fix in the classroom.
"I don't see how anyone would believe that throwing a lot of money at iPads right now would lead to improvements in this kind of school," he said. "This feels a little bit desperate."
Serving as a catalyst
Computers in the classroom are nothing new, of course. Education experts predict that in the near future, children will have mobile devices and digital tablets in hand throughout the school day. In California, one school system is using iPods on a large scale for young readers who record themselves reading aloud.
"This is growing at tremendous speed," said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "It's striking how fast the penetration of these devices is occurring."
Educators stress that the gizmos themselves don't produce results. But used in the right way, hand-held computers can deepen content and produce effective assessments and better links to home, Dede said. "If it's used as a catalyst in those ways, there's a lot of research that it is very powerful."
He pointed out that the tablets are easy to use, lightweight and allow for small group work.
Franklin Academy Principal David Mahaley, a proponent of iPads, said implementing the program wasn't easy. He had to make sure the school's infrastructure could handle all the machines operating at once. He had to negotiate volume licenses and find affordable applications to install on them. The school so far has spent about $200 on apps and digital texts.
At first, the students were allowed to use the iPads only in the history class. Pretty soon, though, they persuaded Mahaley to allow them to carry them to all classes. Last month, they began taking them home.
"Portability is pretty magnificent," Mahaley said.
Students use something called Dropbox to store their documents in a "cloud" that can be accessed at any computer. They like being able to type their notes and have maps and other references at their fingertips while in class.
Hall, the first in the school to teach with iPads, said his students had to learn through trial and error. There was no training. But he has been impressed by his students' ability both to work independently and to collaborate to solve problems.
During the Middle Ages presentation, Hall sat quietly in the back of the room and let his students control the conversation. Occasionally, he piped up. When one historical figure was glossed over, Hall interrupted: "We'll go back to Joan of Arc because she's kind of a paradoxical figure in history."
Teachers traditionally have been the conveyors of information. But Hall said he sees himself now as more of a facilitator who helps students draw connections and think critically about the information.
Public schools in North Carolina are taking different approaches to technology, state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said. The state will put out a request for bids for an electronic tool that teachers can use to track student learning and ultimately customize approaches for students who don't grasp the material.
Computers can open up new worlds to struggling students, Atkinson said. For example, young readers who haven't had an adult read aloud to them can follow along in an audio book. In science, students can take a virtual trip through the human digestive system.
"You can show, you can demonstrate, and you can give immediate feedback," she said.
Cumberland County plans to make its 87 schools wireless by 2013 and to buy netbooks (no frills laptops) for teachers. Eventually, the district wants a "one-to-one" setup - meaning a device in the hands of all students and teachers.
"Our students are digital natives," said Kevin Coleman, executive director of technology for the Cumberland school system. "They have grown up multitasking."
Wake County schools
Wake County schools plans to use Race to the Top proceeds to improve four low-performing schools. Some money will go to salary incentives, merit pay and hiring additional teachers. Some will go toward creating 95 technology-rich interactive classrooms.
The schools may buy personal computing devices for students and faculty in the four schools, said David Neter, Wake's chief business officer. School leaders have not chosen a device yet because they're not sure they'll have enough money.
Some say schools are asking for trouble if they spend millions on mobile devices and iPads that quickly become outdated. It's easy for the devices to be stolen, lost or broken, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He predicted headaches for teachers.
"I think it sounds ridiculous," he said. "This is the worst kind of thoughtless technology use."
Mahaley praised his students for taking the school in new directions. He'd like to see iPads in the hands of every student someday.
But he added a caution: "Technology is not the cure for all academic ills. Technology is a tool, when there is appropriate planning, deployment and training. If a school buys 100 of these things and throws them at the students, it's going to be a disaster."
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