ENCINITAS — In Lindsay Duncan’s class at El Camino Creek, one fourth grade student looked up the definition of “blubber.” One girl found a suitable picture of a whale and attached it to her presentation about marine life.
Books, paper and pencils weren’t in the hands of any of Duncan’s students — only iPads. These days, it’s a common sight in classrooms throughout the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD). Every third through six-grader at EUSD has an iPad, and the district is looking at rolling out more iPads for younger students. Meanwhile, researchers are looking at how the rapidly growing technology is impacting learning.
Duncan is among those researchers. She recently wrote a thesis on iPads in schools after surveying 120 fourth-graders and their parents last school year, when the pilot program debuted. Further, the University of San Diego is slated to release a study this summer on the use of iPads in the district.
“Most people think all technology is great,” Duncan said. “Without rushing to that conclusion, my question was: How might this affect kids? Are they (the iPads) motivational? And I was interested in how students and parents perceive the iPads.”
Duncan’s research indicates students largely believe the iPads are a valuable tool. Parents also see the iPads as beneficial, but some have some reservations with the technology.
Notably, 90 percent of students said the iPad aided their learning. For one, they liked the instant feedback that comes with iPads. Students no longer have to wait days for test results — now it’s a matter of minutes.
“The questions are still fresh in their minds and they can figure out right then what they can work on or improve,” Duncan said. “We had to take a paper test a few weeks ago, and the students just didn’t seem engaged.”
Students overwhelmingly said the iPads made math easier to understand, more so than other subjects. Duncan said that’s likely because students are given a step-by-step animation of how to complete problems. If they’re incorrect, the devices highlight where they went wrong on the spot.
Also, she noted some applications offer “awards” or “achievements” for completing problems, making learning more interactive and motivational.
“Those can be really motivational,” Duncan said. “Students really like challenges like that.”
Most parents noted that their children were more engaged when using the iPads. They also liked that their children were gaining exposure to a variety of computer programs.
Indeed, Duncan recalled how she recently let groups in her class decide which app they wanted to utilize for a history presentation. They could use a movie-making app, arrange slides or explain the information with a story panel app.
But some parents weren’t as enthusiastic about the iPads. They worried the novelty of the technology would wear off over time, along with engagement. They stated it’s important that technology doesn’t replace hands-on learning.
To that end, Duncan estimates her class spends 40 to 70 percent of the day on their iPads, and the students can take the devices home if they have homework. It’s all about finding a balance, she said.
“They still need P.E., to read from paperback books, to do cursive, to practice how to write and make things with their hands,” Duncan said.
As for teaching, Duncan said the biggest challenge of the iPads is making sure all of her students stay on task. Also, she has to focus on cutting down on distractions inherent with the machines.
There are some built in safeguards. The district filters inappropriate websites and teachers can track student progress from their own iPads to make sure each student is on the ball.
“I know who needs help — it’s very targeted in that sense,” Duncan said.
Beyond that, Duncan said she established strict rules for what’s OK with the iPads at the beginning of the school year.
“I don’t give them a lot of free time with the iPads because I don’t want them playing games,” Duncan said. “They’re forbidden from downloading apps or anything like.”
“I want students to view them as an educational tool,” she added.
Overall, Duncan said her research, as well as her experiences as a teacher, have made her believe iPads have a permanent place in the classroom.
So far, the district has spent $1.7 million on 3,500 iPads for the third through six-graders at its nine schools. Most of the funds have come from Proposition P, a $44 million bond that was passed in 2010. Over 30 years, the bond will pay for facility upgrades and technology improvements throughout the district.
Currently, the district is weighing whether to purchase iPads for all of its K-2 students with bond money, depending on the results of a pilot program for younger students that launched this year. If the district opts to buy the iPads, they’ll be distributed over the next 18 months.
David Miyashiro, assistant superintendent of educational services for the district, said the iPads could save money in the long term. He noted the district spends $200,000 to $300,000 per year on workbooks for language arts and math.
“By migrating to a digital solution we will free ourselves from dependency on these outdated resources,” Miyashiro said.
In the meantime, three researchers from the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center are also studying the iPads. They’re conducting a case study at fifth and sixth-grade classrooms to gauge how the district can better train teachers at EUSD, and possibly other districts, in iPad management.
“Our focus in this study is on teacher practice — what teachers do and what types of activities and experiences students have as a result, including how this varies across individuals and content areas,” said Roxanne Ruzic, director of research with the Mobile Technology Learning Center.
Throughout the school year, the researchers have observed students and teachers in the classroom, as well as interviewed teachers and talked informally with students. They’ll present their findings to EUSD this summer.
Erika Daniels, co-coordinator of the middle level educational credential program at Cal State San Marcos, said that more teaching programs are integrating iPad-specific training into the their curriculum. Included in these lessons are how to handle a classroom where each student has an iPad.
“In our educational technology classes, we incorporate iPad and other technology training into our lessons,” Daniels said. “It’s a another tool for a complete teacher.”
The training is new and came about following the “explosion” of iPads at school districts across the country, Daniels said.
She cautioned that the iPads should only be “a means to a larger end,” and thus are not meant to replace teachers.