Teachers across NC will get iPads. How will that work in classrooms?

The NC Department of Public Instruction announced last month that it will provide every K-3 classroom in North Carolina a new iPad.
The NC Department of Public Instruction announced last month that it will provide every K-3 classroom in North Carolina a new iPad. ASSOCIATED PRESS

State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced Tuesday that his agency will provide a new iPad for roughly every K-3 public school classroom in North Carolina.

The iPads are funded by $6 million that was supposed to be directed to teachers in 2016 but went unspent, according to the department.

If you’re a teacher or the parent of a child in kindergarten through third grade, you may have questions. Here are some answers.

Who will get iPads?

The tablets are going to every K-3 reading teacher in the state, the Department of Public Instruction said, as part of literacy efforts in those grades.

That means the state will provide one iPad for every 20 K-3 students.

For example, if there are 200 K-3 students enrolled in an elementary school, the state would provide 10 iPads to that school.

“If you think about elementary school, you don’t have reading teachers and math teachers and science teachers. It’s pretty much the classroom teacher, right? Except there’s the gym teacher and the music teacher and they’re not getting iPads. So what it really boils down to is a 1 to 20 ratio of the (enrollment),” DPI spokesman Drew Elliot said.

Why not just provide money?

Elliot said the department is testing various ways to allocate funding and using it to provide technology is just one of those ways.

“Are devices the only way to support K-3 literacy? Obviously the answer is no,” Elliot said.

The department announced earlier this year it would provide $200 to every K-3 reading teacher to buy classroom supplies and materials to engage parents.

”We didn’t tell them what they had to buy,” Elliot said. “We just allotted the money to the school districts and charter schools and they were able to use discretion in what they thought was the best way to use that money.”

The department says buying this many iPads in bulk gets taxpayers a better price and avoids requirement to pay sales tax.

Mark Jewell, president of the NC Association of Educators, said school districts know the best way to spend their money for the needs of their students.

“This underscores the need of public schools to have local control over how funding is distributed based on the specific needs of their students, which varies from district to district,” he said.

Jewell pointed out that many teachers pay out of pocket for basic supplies.

Local taxpayers in Wake County pay for teachers to receive similar devices, but the district welcomed the new iPads.

Wake County schools passed a bond four years ago that has funded the technology, spokeswoman Lisa Luten said.

“The school system appreciates additional supplies, and we continue to grow as a school system and having a supply of devices to replenish devices as they break is always welcome,” Luten said.

She cautioned, however, that public school funding is unequal from county to county, and other districts that don’t receive as much local money may be better off having direct control over technology spending.

Why iPads?

“We went out to our literacy consultants when we started this process and said ‘What technology is most prevalent?’ And they said iPads are overwhelmingly the choice for this grade range,” Elliot said.

He said while the majority of devices being distributed to teachers are iPads, there are some districts which have requested the use of Google Chromebooks or other devices instead for compatibility with their technology and programs. The department is working to provide those other devices through funds from this fiscal year.

Danielle Scharen, a teacher at Kingswood Elementary School in Cary who is on her school’s technology committee, said the school received Chromebooks for every student last year, and K-3 teachers on the committee have tended to prefer iPads for their students, whereas the teachers of fourth and fifth graders tended to prefer the Chromebooks.

“It is great that we are given technology,” Scharen said. “I’m sure there are some technological resources that we don’t have that would be great to have the funding.”

Scharen said at her school they recently used money raised from their book fair to purchase coding programs for students.

What other money will be needed?

Will additional costs arise when a screen breaks or online security measures need to be implemented?

Elliot said that districts are already accounting for most of those costs through funds for devices they’re already using.

How does the technology improve reading skills?

A selection of early-literacy applications will be installed on the iPads to monitor student progress and provide data to the teachers without students knowing they’re being tested.

It’s part of a state effort tor reduce formative testing, which tests students just to inform instruction rather than as end-of-course testing.

Teachers can use the technology to evaluate what issues portions of the class are struggling with and choose how to more effectively improve those skills — for example, by dividing classes into groups or working one-on-one with individual students.

“While nothing will ever replace the teacher in the classroom, it allows a multiplier effect for the teacher’s resources to be able to, one, know what students are where in terms of their learning progress and, two, to be able to maximize the instruction time and reduce the amount of testing that’s done,” Elliot said.

Jewell said that while technology is always going to be needed and continue to advance and grow, it isn’t the only important classroom tool.

“Obviously we support technology in the classroom and at home, but we also know that technology can’t single-handedly replace textbooks and that parents want a book at home to be able to help their students on assignments,” Jewell said.