Focus, Higher Education, and Technology

Tablet computers springing up in more classrooms

Instructors are adapting their lessons to keep up with technology.

February 8, 2013
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Tablet computers springing up in more classrooms
More students in school districts throughout Michigan are making use of tablet computers, which is changing the way teachers are delivering lessons. © iStockphoto.com/WILLSIE
LANSING — How do you keep students interested? Novelty.

As the burgeoning tablet market reaches into the under-tapped field of education, iPads and other tablets are finding a happy home in tech-starved schools across the state. And some teachers say they may have the sought-after solution to the problem of student engagement as their districts appropriate millions of dollars for new technology.

Dozens of schools in Michigan have already purchased iPads for students, and many more are considering the same, according to the Department of Education. Sturgis High School and Ludington’s Franklin Elementary School bought enough for every student.

Enthusiastic teachers and administrators say tablets can engage students in an interactive way that wasn’t possible before, now that they can flip through teachers’ PowerPoint presentations at their own pace.

And it’s even causing some teachers to change their teaching style.

Math instructor Craig Evans at Sturgis High has used PowerPoint presentations for years. But now that students can take notes directly on their own copy of the slides, they spend less time scribbling notes.

“Because of it, I’ve actually changed some of my lessons, so that some of my slides are meant to be more independent, as opposed to teacher-led,” Evans said.

Sturgis’ tablets cost $600,000, with an additional $34,000 for protective covers.

Statewide, school officials are beginning to look at iPads as their hand-held saviors. Those sometimes-infuriating touch screens, for all their possibilities and limitations, increase student engagement when correctly integrated into coursework, advocates say.

Students in Amber Kowatch’s 2nd-grade class in Ludington use their iPads to create videos and contribute to a group wiki — a collaborative website that lets users add or edit content. She said she wishes other classrooms would follow suit.

“Some districts don’t want to face the reality that education has changed so drastically,” she said. “They need to face that head-on to meet the needs of their students.”

The problem is funding, says Bruce Umpstead, data coordinator for the Department of Education. He produced a soon-to-be-released documentary about the success of the iPad initiative in Ludington.

Many schools like those in Ludington and Greenville raised enough local funds to purchase a variety of tablets. Schools in Michigan typically use a district-backed bond to pay for expensive equipment.

The board of education in Brighton recently approved an $88.4 million bond, a portion of which will be used to purchase new computers and other equipment.

Greenville approved its own $178,000 investment last year for tablets, and in Harbor Springs the district recently passed a $3.9 million bond for technology and transportation, a portion of which will be used to purchase iPads.

Zeeland Public Schools bought enough iPads for every student in the district, using money from a $20 million bond voters recently approved.

But many schools don’t have enough money, and Umpstead said that could increase an already growing disparity of performance between districts with comfortable budgets and those in dire straits.

The key, he said, is getting schools to list technology as an operational expense, which puts additional pressure on state-aid providers to fund new technology for schools.

Tech-savvy teachers like Kowatch say the future of teaching will involve an increasing amount of technology. Her students’ reading test scores shot up by 16 percent since she handed out the iPads last year. One classroom isn’t a big enough sample size to reach definitive conclusions, but she said the bolstered scores correlate to the new tablets.

Tablet manufacturers have convinced dozens of schools in the state, and hundreds nationwide, that students need their products to compete “in a 21st century global community,” as many schools’ websites assert. And as more districts buy in, more neighboring schools follow suit.

According to a study by the Center for Digital Education in Folsom, Calif., schools spent $19.7 billion on new technology from 2010-2011.

Jennifer Bond, a self-described tech pioneer in Walled Lake, says her 3rd-grade class was the first in Glengary Elementary School to start “bring your own device” days, referred to as BYOD days. She’s done them four or five times, and they’ve been fun and engaging for her students, she said.

Now the school is thinking of doing the same in more classrooms.

When she recorded videos of her lesson and showed them to the class, students seemed much more attentive than when she taught the same material in a traditional way, she said. “You’re using the novelty to engage them.”

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