ENCINITAS — Four iPads, each covered in a rubbery blue casing, stood on a desk in classroom at Ocean Knoll Elementary. Rotating groups of first-graders took turns completing reading exercises on the iPads.
But each first-grader, along with other K-2 students in the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD), will have their own iPad in the next month.
EUSD put iPads in all third- through sixth-graders’ hands last year. While the sight of iPads for upper grades is nothing new around San Diego, a one-to-one iPad program for K-2 is uncharted territory among county districts.
“The district piloted the program for younger grades last year,” said Ashley Tarquin, a teacher on special assignment who’s helping to oversee the K-2 iPad rollout. “We liked what we saw and decided to expand the program.”
Tarquin said the district bought the iPads to help tackle new, sweeping educational changes known as Common Core. The Common Core tests emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization, even for younger students.
“For Common Core, students memorizing the lecture isn’t enough,” Tarquin said.
She said that students equipped with iPads can explore a topic individually with ease, adding to their understanding. For instance, first-graders recently put together a presentation about Madagascar reefs on their iPads. Expressing what they learned developed critical thinking skills in a way that a teacher’s lecture can’t, she said.
For third- through sixth-graders, iPads are primarily powered on for presentations and group projects, Tarquin noted. Meanwhile, the K-2 students focus a bit more on individual fundamental skills like reading with their iPads, Tarquin said.
The district held two information sessions on the K-2 iPads for parents last week. Tarquin said that parents mainly came to listen. Some, though, raised concerns over the devices posing a distraction for the younger students.
“They wanted to make sure the kids weren’t plugged into games,” Tarquin said.
Tarquin said students are prohibited from loading their own games or other software on the device. If a student is caught not on task, the iPad will be taken away for the rest of the day. That deterrent has proven effective; there have been few incidents, especially among younger students, she said.
And others were worried about K-2 students spending too much time staring at their iPad screens. In response, Tarquin said handwriting and playing outdoors are still a big part of the school day.
Although more school districts are turning to iPads for younger students, few studies chart how the devices impact K-2.
A 2012 study showed increases in literacy test scores for Auburn School District kindergarteners who used iPads over nine weeks.
For that study, the researchers randomly selected eight of 16 kindergarten classes from the Auburn district. The randomly selected students were given iPads and took three different literacy tests at the end of 12 weeks. For one of the tests, the students with iPads demonstrated substantially higher scores when compared with a control group of students without the devices. Results from the other two literacy tests showed a slight bump on average among the students with iPads, though not statistically significant.
Damian Bebell, a researcher at Boston College, coordinated with two others to conduct the Auburn study. He noted the Auburn school was swayed enough by the test gains to purchase more iPads.
He expects more studies to look at not only iPads and other technology, but also how certain apps affect students’ experiences.
“In a time of tight funding, school districts want to justify how they’re spending their dollars,” Bebell said.
Once the rollout is complete, EUSD will have spent roughly $2.7 million on 5,400 iPads for K-6. On top of that, apps for each iPad are $50, and the district ordered covers for the K-2 iPads at a cost of $18 each.
Also, the district is considering buying keyboards for some iPads.
Proposition P, a $44 million bond that was passed three years ago, paid for nearly all of the expense. Over 30 years, the bond is earmarked to pay for facility upgrades and technology improvements throughout the district.
As for direct out-of-pocket costs, parents can pay $50 for insurance to cover accidental damage for the iPad, whether it’s at school or home.
In addition to Common Core, the district made the decision to buy more iPads after hearing from teachers who piloted the K-2 iPad program last year.
“Many of the teachers were advocating to increase the number…so that their students had more time available to work on programs that increased student skills in math and reading,” said Mike Guerena, director of instructional technology at EUSD.
Also, when considering K-2 iPads, the district looked at self-reported surveys last year from students and teachers in grades three through six, according to Guerena. Notably, those teachers surveyed said engagement levels were up.
“Students were more motivated to learn and take on assignments,” Guerena said.
A request for the survey results was not returned by press time.
Julie Kusiak, a first grade teacher at Ocean Knoll, said she’s noticed the math and reading programs keep students’ interest, because they’re more interactive than a book.
“The instant feedback lets them know what they should work on,” Kusiak said.
She added that the iPads allow for unique assignments. For instance, her students were getting ready to video themselves asking adults what it means to be a good citizen as part of a social studies topic. After that, they were due to edit the video and present it.
As well as the self-reported surveys, the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Center is also studying the iPads. Researchers from the center conducted a case study at fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms to gauge how the district can better coach teachers at EUSD, and other schools, in iPad management. It’s anticipated the study will be released in the next month.
And last week, the district held an all-day training session for teachers in guiding classrooms with iPads.
“We’re learning along with the kids about what the iPads can do,” Kusiak said.