Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

iPad Craze Hits South Bay Schools

iPad Craze Hits South Bay Schools

For students in Gina Ball’s algebra class at Adams Middle School in Redondo Beach, taking quizzes on work sheets has suddenly become a thing of the past – now they just use the iPad.

At Pacific Elementary School in Manhattan Beach, fourth-graders in Paula Noda’s class no longer write essays about an annual trip to a mission in Orange County – now they put together an iPad video, complete with theme music, sound effects and panning.

At Richmond Street Elementary in El Segundo, first-graders practice their letters not with a pencil but with their index fingers, which they trace against the screen of – you guessed it – the iPad.

The iPad craze has officially hit South Bay schools, which this fall began snapping up the sleek devices by the dozen, and in some cases by the hundred. At about $600 a pop (not counting the cost for programs), it’s a considerable expense, especially in this era of unprecedented cutbacks.

But educators insist the investment is worth it because the iPads are the wave of the future, not a passing fad. Especially in light of Apple’s recent announcement about jumping into the textbook game.

“There is not a ton of debate about whether this is a direction the schools are heading,” said Annette Alpern, assistant superintendent of instructional services at the Redondo Beach Unified School District. “The question is more: How quickly will the future arrive?”

Pacific School Mission IMovie from Paula Noda on Vimeo.

Leading the charge is Manhattan Beach Unified, which purchased 560 devices for a pilot project this fall. That’s one machine for every dozen kids in the K-12 school district – although many more students get a little face time with the iPads, as the devices are rotated from class to class, usually on a cart with wheels.

When it comes to the use of the tablet computer in the classroom, Manhattan Beach is the district to watch – and not just because it has purchased so many. For one thing, it is training teachers from throughout the South Bay how to use the tablets. Perhaps more to the point, the district is trying to take a scientific approach, meaning it is not only charting a pedagogical course, but taking data in the process. Specifically, the district is periodically surveying students, teachers and parents on the effectiveness of the pilot.

“We want to demonstrate that it helps teachers to teach and students to learn,” district spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said. “If we can’t demonstrate that, then this isn’t a pilot worth expanding.”

Pierce Kingston and Natalie Trayton were quick to figure out the steps to making a movie with their iPads. Pacific Elementary School, Manhattan Beach. Photo by Brad Graverson
Pierce Kingston and Natalie Trayton were quick to figure out the steps to making a movie with their iPads. Pacific Elementary School, Manhattan Beach. Photo by Brad Graverson

The verdict so far: The iPads are enhancing the learning process.

But the rosy review isn’t without its caveats. For instance, preliminary results show that the high levels of enthusiasm exhibited by teachers and students at the elementary level tends to wane slightly as the age groups get older, with high schools demonstrating the lowest levels.

As for test scores, they’ve gone up significantly in the one example studied by the district to date: a middle-school science chapter test on DNA, where the percentage of students scoring proficient or better has climbed in a year from 63 to 76 percent.

Another caveat: The initial wow factor seems to be waning somewhat.

While 97 percent of the participating teachers in Manhattan Beach reported in November that the iPad makes class more engaging, that proportion had dropped to 86 percent by the end of January. The proportion of students who said so also dropped, though less steeply, from 81 to 77 percent.

Also trending downward was the share of teachers reporting that the iPad has made the classroom a more innovative place for learning: from 82 percent in November to 68 percent in January.

Richard Clark, professor of educational psychology and technology at USC, is a voice of caution amid the storm of infectious enthusiasm.

While he agrees that the iPad can be a good teaching tool, he questions the oft-stated claim that it better motivates students to learn.

“Research shows that it’s true for maybe an hour, but when students see they have to work just as hard, the motivation can go away,” he said.

He added: “We’ve known for half a century that media doesn’t make any difference in learning, any more than the truck that delivers groceries to the store increases the nutrition of the customers that are there.”

Be that as it may, the general consensus among South Bay educators is that the tablets are here to stay.

“I’ve never seen so much excitement from the students – nor commitment from me,” said Ball, the algebra teacher at Adams Middle School who has been in the business for 20 years.

Among her favorite aspects of the devices is their ability to provide instant feedback. Gone is the need to lug home a stack of quizzes in her briefcase – the machines spit out the grades in real time. Right away, she can see that most of the class mastered question No. 2, but also missed question No. 6. She then can immediately devote her teaching energy to that weak spot.

The fervor also has spilled over into the realm of special education.

Richard Bernard, a veteran science instructor for the South Bay region’s hearing-impaired high school students – who, despite being teens, tend to read and write at about a second-grade level – said the iPad has completely upended the way in which he teaches.

“Many teachers are using the iPad as a tool,” he said. “My approach is it is the tool.”

No longer does Bernard deliver lectures in front of the class, a routine he did every day until this year. Instead, the students – who attend class at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach – learn at their own pace using apps that provide real-time feedback on whether they are mastering the material and ready to move on to the next thing.

“I’m not a teacher anymore – I’m kind of the group leader,” he said, though students still must demonstrate to him that they have mastered the standards before advancing to the next level.

Tablet technology doesn’t come cheap.

The Manhattan Beach school district shelled out about $400,000 for this year’s batch of devices. Soon, the school board will consider whether to expand the program and, if so, by how much. The options range from spending no money next year to doubling down on the current $400,000 program to shelling out nearly $3 million for “full implementation” – that is, one iPad per child districtwide.

The Redondo Beach school district has purchased about 200 iPads so far and there are plans to buy more, Superintendent Steven Keller said.

“The days of hardware and plugging in are more and more passe,” he said. “This is the way students are learning. We need to lean into this.”

The enthusiasm among South Bay educators for tablet technology extends to California State University, Dominguez Hills. The Carson campus now uses the iPad in several courses, such as developmental math and classes for teachers in training.

Among the believers is Jeff Miller, an associate professor in the college of education.

But he worries iPad fever could exacerbate what is widely referred to as the digital divide, in which students from low-income schools don’t have the same access to technology as their peers in more affluent areas.

He also cautions that the iPad should be a tool for teaching, not the teacher in and of itself.

“My fear would be some teachers just give out the iPad and say, `Go online and try to find something out,’ rather than really giving them guidelines,” he said.

Seaton of the Manhattan Beach school district agrees.

“An iPad doesn’t teach the kid,” she said, “the teacher does.”

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