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Tablets turning the page on textbooks

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By Samuel Speciale, Education Reporter 
Charleston Daily Mail 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With more than 170 million units sold, the iPad has revolutionized mobile computing since its release in 2010. While Apple’s market share plummeted to about 36 percent last year with the emergence of cheaper Android-based tablets, it can be said that the iPad has changed the way people work, play and communicate.

Four years after being introduced to consumers around the globe, the trend-setting tablet is poised to drastically change the way Raleigh County students learn by turning textbooks, plastic foam dioramas and library card catalogs into things of the past.

As part of a new digital learning initiative, the county has distributed more than 10,000 iPads throughout its 28 school-system. While the program is still in its infancy, the state department of education hopes all of West Virginia can copy Raleigh County and go digital in the near future.

On any given weeknight, Maddie Bostick and Abigail Roop help each other do homework on their iPads by using a video chat application called FaceTime. In fact, the two Beckley-Stratton Middle School eighth graders use their iPads to do almost all of their schoolwork.

They aren’t the only ones.

Bostick, Roop, and all other students in Raleigh County have a school-distributed iPad thanks to a local levy and state funds that allocate money for technology purchases for the classroom.

In February, residents voted in favor of continuing an education levy that has been in effect since 1941.

Jeff Webb, network administrator for Raleigh County Schools, said in addition to levy money, federal and state funds have helped pay for the system’s digital upgrade.

At the federal level, the schools receive money through several sources, such as the E-Rate Program, which makes telecommunication and Internet access affordable and accessible to schools and libraries.

The state Legislature also allocates funds for county schools to purchase technology and digital tools.

Locally, running levies on a ballot are a county-by-county decision, but not all counties have levies and those with education levies don’t always fund technology.

Raleigh County just happens to have hit upon a perfect blend of government funding dedicated to digital learning.

As a result, the county was able to purchase approximately 10,300 iPads last year, as well as MacBooks for teachers and AppleTVs for each classroom.

For grades three through 12, iPads are distributed on a one-to-one basis, meaning there is one device for every student. These students also are permitted to take their tablets home and are allowed various degrees of personalization. For second grade and younger, two students share an iPad and the devices have to stay at school.

This means the cumbersome mobile computer labs teachers had to cart down hallways are essentially retired. Before the school implemented the one-to-one digital program, 800 students and teachers had to fight for access to about 180 laptops.

Rachel Pauley, Beckley-Stratton principal, said it was a chore to coordinate access for that many people because there were too few computers and too tight a schedule. For instance, while math teachers required daily access to computers, social studies teachers were only able to use them once every two weeks.

Pauley said the digital upgrade has, in a sense, re-booted the school and that teachers who previously did not get regular access to technology are “teaching away.”

She said it has taken time for Beckley-Stratton’s 53 teachers to get used to the new technology, but they are beginning to embrace the change.

“It used to be that when you walked down the hallway, you could see teachers carrying books,” Pauley said. “Now, you see them carrying their MacBooks and iPads.”

Pauley said the whole concept of education in Raleigh County has changed now that teachers, students and administrators have access to resources they didn’t have before.

Pauley said the iPads, which are housed in green impact-resistant cases, can be seen all around the county. The cases are easily identified, but it also helps that elementary, middle and high school students, who have been issued a tablet, make up about 10 percent of the population.

“You see iPads all over town,” Pauley said. “You’ll see them at restaurants, movie theaters and even at church.”

While students are allowed to take their devices home and carry them wherever they go, they are required to bring them to class each day, charged and in good shape.

There aren’t many limitations as to where students can take their iPads, but there are rules on how they can be used because Apple has an iTunes ID policy that restricts access to anyone younger than 13.

Because of this, eighth through 12th-graders can have personal models with their own profiles, iTunes accounts, pictures, video and downloaded music. Meantime, those in seventh grade and below can still have pictures, but use institutional tablets with pre-installed profiles, applications and restricted iTunes access. All Internet browsing is filtered whether done at school or at home.

Malati Reeve, Beckley-Stratton’s librarian and systems operator, has digitized the school’s entire library catalog. Students also have access to more material because they can get e-books on their iPads.

When they are broken, whether or not it is the student’s fault, Reeve fills out a warranty claim. As long as Apple doesn’t deem the damage intentional, the iPad will be replaced at a small cost.

The school has some extra tablets in storage so students are guaranteed to have one at all times, but Pauley said they aren’t needed as often as one would expect. She said students have been responsible and that there have been fewer than 20 incidents in the eight months since the iPads were distributed.

“When you think of how rough middle schools kids can be, that’s not bad,” she said.

Making sure students take care of their devices isn’t the only way Beckley-Stratton teachers ensure technology is properly utilized at school. Travis Doyle, co-systems operator, said it all comes down to simple classroom management and watching students the way a teacher is supposed to.

“You have to make sure kids — when they walk into the classroom — have their iPads in a certain place until they have to do something with them,” he said. “If you don’t give them idle time, they can’t do idle things.”

Roop said having an iPad at school doesn’t distract her, but some younger students might be tempted to use them to play games.

Students like RaJon Staunton not only embrace the new technology but welcome the responsibilities that come with it.

Staunton, an eighth grader, said he has a better time keeping up with all his assignments now that he has an iPad. He said he has always been a good student, but has seen his math score improve from a high B to a high A.

Staunton didn’t say whether his improvement is aided by the scientific calculator app he downloaded for himself, but it does help him balance more difficult equations.

Doyle said technology has changed Beckley-Stratton’s learning dynamic because the tablets house all of the resources students would use at school.

It’s also changed how teachers instruct and assign homework.

“When you have kids work outside of school and you don’t have technology, you can only guarantee they have pencil, paper and access to nothing else,” Doyle said. “So you can only assign work that they can use pencil, paper and nothing else. You can do a lot of critical thinking, but you can’t do research, and you can’t assume they have people at home to help them with the assignments.”

Beckley-Stratton eighth-grader Bostick said another benefit is that she doesn’t have to go the library anymore when she wants to learn something or look something up for a project.

“The learning environment isn’t just confined to the classroom now,” she said.

Doyle, who also teaches English and literature classes, said technology isn’t just used for math and science classes. He said technological advances evolved language and writing throughout history, but social media and texting surround students with informal shorthand that has negatively affected the way they communicate.

“A lot of kids out there think that’s okay — that they can write like that,” he said. “It helps a great deal when they are surrounded by correct media that can change their style of writing and speech.”

While the tablets are changing the way students read, write and do math and science, there is still much to do in terms of fully implementing the technology.

Pauley said the program has four stages — substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition. She said the school is currently substituting a lot of things, like textbooks and homework, until teachers and students get more comfortable with the devices.

She said everyone has been impressed with the progress so far, but she looks forward to seeing where the school is in five years when it has navigated all four stages.

Because the Raleigh County digital learning program has been so successful so far, the state department of education is looking at ways to incorporate elements into a statewide program.

Sterling Beane, chief technology officer for the state department of education, said West Virginia is like most states in that it has a need for the learning environment to extend beyond the walls of a brick and mortar school. He calls for “anytime anywhere learning.”

While Beane and other state officials are optimistic about the future of education in West Virginia, there are some obstacles that could prevent a statewide rollout.

He said access to high speed Internet in homes would be a major hurdle for many counties. He said the state is currently working on a way to fix that, but could not give specifics as to whether it included a bid for more high-speed or fiber-optic infrastructure.

While the Internet can link a little county school in West Virginia to another school across the globe, access is hindered by geography and availability.

Beane said syncing devices at school, as second graders in Raleigh County do, is one way to work around a lack of Internet access limited by geography. By syncing the device and loading assignments at school, students can still use the device at home to finish assignments. They would only need to bring it back the next day and upload their work before re-syncing.

Another problem is the distribution of devices. Beane said the state is looking at a Bring Your Own Device initiative because many students already own tablets and are willing to bring them to school.

To make such an initiative work though, a “device agnostic” software that could work on any device, regardless of its operating system, would be needed.

“There is a lot of ground to cover to make a statewide implementation successful, but that is our ultimate goal,” Beane said. “It requires more than technology though; it takes policy-making as well.”

While changing procedures can often take years, Beane said finding a way to pay for everything will be the biggest hurdle to overcome because “it does come at a cost.”

Because statewide implementation has to take into account the 1982 Recht Decision — which mandated that every student receive an equitable education — the department of education has to ensure every student in every county — more than 280,000 students — has access to these devices.

While it may be several years away, Beane says such an achievement will put the state in a favorable standing among surrounding states.

“That’s where we want to be,” he said. “We want to be positioned as a leader. We want access to the finest technology in our schools so people will want to come to West Virginia, and students who go through school system are prepared to go into the world because they have had access throughout their education.”

When asked how he felt to be at the forefront of digital learning in West Virginia, Staunton said “it feels good” to be a trendsetter and set the example.