All Tech Considered
2:30 pm
Fri October 25, 2013

A School's iPad Initiative Brings Optimism And Skepticism

Originally published on Fri October 25, 2013 4:55 pm

A growing number of school districts across America are trying to weave tablet computers, like the iPad, into the classroom fabric, especially as a tool to help implement the new Common Core state standards for math and reading.

One of California's poorest school districts, the Coachella Valley Unified southeast of Los Angeles, is currently rolling out iPads to every student, pre-kindergarten through high school. It's an ambitious effort that administrators and parents hope will transform how kids learn, boost achievement and narrow the digital divide with wealthier districts.

But, as with tablet efforts across the country, this one faces skeptics and obstacles. Some wonder if its projected benefits are being grossly oversold.

Personalizing Education

Before becoming Coachella Valley's superintendent of schools, Darryl Adams was a keyboardist and singer with the '80s pop rock band Xavion. It was a one-hit wonder, complete with '80s hairdos and a slot on a Hall & Oates tour. He says it was the first all-black rock band on MTV.

Today, Adams still has a touch of the showman as he talks about his school district's latest project.

"Everyone will have an iPad!" he says with a broad smile. "It's gonna be exciting!"

Music was Adams' passion when he was young; it was what inspired him in school. And he sees the iPad plan as central to exciting kids in school today. He argues that since the federal No Child Left Behind initiative 10-plus years ago, school districts have often failed to inspire kids. Instead, he says, they've been teaching them how to take tests.

"And that's not what education is about. So for the first time in our history as a nation, I think in the world, we're going to be able to individualize and personalize education," Adams says.

The district has leased the tablets from Apple at a cost of nearly $9 million. Voters here approved a bond issue, backed by property taxes, to pay for most of it. Funds from Title I — a federal program designed to help low-income schools — and from California's Common Core initiative are also being used for training and implementation.

Some 80 percent of kids in his district live in poverty, Adams says. He sees the tablet plan as a civil rights issue, noting that the bond measure passed with nearly 70 percent support. "Some of our families live in trailer home parks. Some are migrant farmers," he says. "But they're putting money on the line for each other, and that's a true indication the community cares about each other."

'No One Is The Expert Anymore'

The district has set up headquarters in a trailer to coordinate the massive distribution of nearly 20,000 iPads and accompanying training, security, curriculum changes, parental consent forms, and more. Inspirational quotes dot the walls — not from famous educators, but from Apple's late founder, Steve Jobs.

Matt Hamilton, the district's educational technology coordinator, says educators and students are learning from each other. "No one is the expert anymore," he says. "The whole paradigm has really shifted. Teachers are no longer the possessors of knowledge. They're more the facilitators of learning."

Students in seventh grade and up can take their tablets home on evenings, weekends and every school break except summer. Sixth grade and below will have to leave the devices in a locked classroom cart.

The district set up a training program to highlight the best teaching practices and to brainstorm classroom curricula. Music teacher Michael Richardson, one of 120 pilot teachers, says he has involved students in figuring out the devices. One student, for example, found a promising music app and "he taught the class and taught me. It was kind of great," Richardson says.

Middle school English teacher Patricia Inghram was also in the pilot program, which tested the tablets in every grade and every subject matter throughout the district. She says she's been using them extensively and successfully in her classes for more than a year. Even though she's a longtime teacher who started out teaching on chalkboards, she says, "I feel comfortable enough to use it at this point, and I think they're fantastic tools."

High school geometry teacher Patrick Beal says the challenge is to make the tablet more than a glorified notebook. "The goal is to transform what I do in the classroom into something completely different: to take them outside of class, spark curiosity and inspire the learning process," he says.

Security Concerns

It's not clear how many schools or districts across the country are using tablets in the classroom. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't track the number, and an Apple spokesman declined to comment or provide numbers on how many schools have worked with iPad classroom initiatives.

Some districts have publicly stumbled with their initiatives. Los Angeles Unified students easily got around restrictions on their district-issued iPads last month: They simply deleted their personal profile info and then could surf the Web without restriction. LA quickly put on the brakes on its billion-dollar iPad rollout to boost security and make other changes. Several other districts across the country have also delayed their tablet plans because of security concerns.

Coachella Valley is trying to learn from LA's problems. It's working with Apple to strengthen profile security and will block harmful and inappropriate online content, as required under the rules for districts that receive federal tech dollars. For now, social media sites and YouTube will not be blocked.

Inghram says some security measures should be a classroom management issue. She has kids take a "tech oath" on digital citizenship and proper use of the iPad: no cyberbullying, harmful or inappropriate pictures or content, or social media during class time.

Some of the projects she's done in class include using the tablets to produce podcasts and link via Skype with experts at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Her favorite: virtually visiting the historic Globe Theatre in the U.K. during a lesson on Shakespeare.

Many of the kids never leave the area, Inghram says. "But being able to talk to someone who is sitting in the Globe Theatre and show them around the building and answer their questions about Shakespeare while you're reading his sonnets is an experience that, you know, it opens their eyes."

Lack Of Connection

But some teachers, parents and kids worry that there's a kind of iPad boosterism here that borders on naive. While school district officials are promoting the tablets as central to improving academic achievement, research on that so far is mixed at best.

At Coachella Valley High School, one of two high schools in the district, junior Cheyenne Hernandez says she's open to new media in the classroom but wonders if the iPad money might be better spent on other things. She says people will most likely steal them, break them or wear them out.

"And in a student's opinion, most of the kids are going to go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram," she says.

And it's not clear how the district will integrate the curriculum with its ambitious tablet plan. Coachella Valley wants to make the iPads a central part of efforts to meet new Common Core state standards for math and English, and there are new Common Core apps coming out regularly.

But the head librarian of Desert Mirage High School, Rebecca Flanagan, wonders which ones the district will use, how well it will work and how it will all be integrated into a coherent plan.

"That's where I see the difficulty. The disconnect is between giving students an iPad to use and then making it relevant for the classroom," she says. "I mean, it's a toy for them."

Perhaps the biggest bug is connectivity: Large parts of the Coachella Valley are not covered by high-speed Internet. And even where it is available, many families here simply can't afford the service.

Tenth-grader Eli Servin is in a special education class at Coachella Valley High School. His teacher says he "really blossomed" using the iPad at school to help coordinate a recycling project. But at home, he has no Internet connection unless he's connecting to a hot spot on his sister's cellphone or using the Wi-Fi connection at a local McDonald's.

The district is using funding from the bond measure to boost Internet capacity and accessibility for its far-flung schools. But Adams, Coachella's superintendent, acknowledges that expanding connectivity to homes, especially in the district's many rural and impoverished pockets, will be much harder.

"I've told my staff: If we have to park a bus in the neighborhood with a Wi-Fi tower on it or whatever, we will do that to make sure that our students are connected," he says.

It's one of many issues that schools across the country will be intensely observing as the former pop rocker tries to pull off his biggest show yet.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

A school district in California is attempting to transform how kids learn with iPads. Rural Coachella Valley Unified School District, southeast of Palm Springs, is one of the state's poorest communities, where more than 80 percent of the children live in poverty. Every student in Coachella, K through 12, will receive an iPad, and many parents hope the initiative will help close the achievement gap with wealthier districts.

But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the plan faces skeptics and big hurdles.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In an earlier life, before becoming superintendent of the Coachella Valley's School District, Dr. Darryl Adams was keyboardist and singer with the pop rock band Xavion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WESTERVELT: You know, one hit, '80s big hair, and a slot on Hall and Oates "Big Bam Boom" tour.

DR. DARRYL ADAMS: We were the first all-black rock band on MTV, by the way. We had an album out and we were on tour with...

WESTERVELT: Today, there's still a touch of the showman about Dr. Adams, minus the muscle shirts and bad hair.

ADAMS: Everyone will have an iPad. So it's going to be exciting.

WESTERVELT: As a kid, music was his passion. And now Dr. Adams sees Coachella Valley's iPads-for-all initiative as key to his efforts to try to individualize lessons to what excites kids in school. Adams argues that since the federal No Child Left Behind initiative 10-plus years ago his and many other districts have too often failed to inspire kids. Instead, he says, we've just been teaching them how to take tests.

ADAMS: And that's not what education is about. So for the first time in our history as a nation, I think in the world, we're going to be able to individualize and personalize education. Every student will have an individual education plan on how they learn, what they learn, learning styles, what are their passions, what do they like, what do they don't like. And we can really tailor that and customize that for each and every student.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If we search different school districts...

WESTERVELT: The district has set up a kind of war room in a trailer to coordinate the massive distribution of nearly 20,000 iPads and all it entails: training, security, curriculum, parental consent, and more. Kids seventh grade and up get to take their tablets home; sixth and below have to leave it at school. The district has leased the tablets from Apple at a cost of nearly $9 million. Voters passed a bond, backed by property taxes, to pay for much of it.

Seventh and eighth grade English teacher Patricia Inghram is one of dozens of teachers in the district's iPad pilot program. She's been using them extensively in her classes for more than a year.

PATRICIA INGHRAM: I've been around a long time. You know, I'm the old teacher. I started out with the chalkboards. So I feel comfortable enough to use it at this point and I think they're fantastic tools.

WESTERVELT: Parents and teachers have concerns about security. Recently, Los Angeles High School students easily got around restrictions on their district-issued iPads. They simply deleted their personal profile info and they could easily surf the night away, stream music, and play online games. L.A. then put the brakes on the program. Other districts across the country have also delayed rollouts because of similar security concerns.

Inghram says she has her kids take a tech oath on digital citizenship and proper use of the iPad. No cyber bullying, no porn, inappropriate pictures, and no social media during class. Projects she's done in class include using the tablets to produce podcasts, linking via Skype with an expert at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum and virtually visiting the historic Globe Theater in the U.K. while studying the Bard.

INGHRAM: These are kids that are never going to - a lot of them - leave this area. But being able to talk to someone who is sitting in the Globe Theatre and show them around the building and answer their questions about Shakespeare while you're reading his sonnets is an experience that, you know, it opens their eyes. And that's what this technology allows them to do.

WESTERVELT: One geometry teacher here has had a wildly successful program using the online world-building game Minecraft with his students and the iPad. But some teachers, parents and kids worry that there's a kind of iPad boosterism here that borders on the naive. School district officials are promoting the tablets as central to improving academic achievement. But the research on that is mixed at best.

At Coachella Valley High - one of two high schools in the district - junior Cheyenne Hernandez wraps up geometry class. She wonders if the iPad money might be better spent on other things.

CHEYENNE HERNANDEZ: I feel like it's just going to be a waste, because people either are going to steal them, break them, like they're just going to treat them like a textbook. And like in a student's opinion, most of the students are just going to go on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, that's what they're mostly going to do.

WESTERVELT: So drive about ten miles south from Thermal - itself hardly a major metropolis - and you get to the aptly named Desert Mirage High School. Besides some date palm groves, there's really nothing out here but the high school. The nearest restaurant is about five miles away. So librarian Rebecca Flannigan says the high school is the center of activity for many kids and they're eagerly awaiting the iPad initiative.

REBECCA FLANNIGAN: Because our budgets are very slim, we can't always buy the book. There's a new series, divergent series, teen fiction, they all want it.

WESTERVELT: Yet Flannigan's excitement about quickly getting eBooks and more is tempered by deep skepticism. She's a former teacher and her biggest concern is curriculum. Coachella Valley wants to make the iPads central to efforts to meet new Common Core state standards for Math and English. There are new Common Core apps coming out all the time. But Flannigan wonders which ones the district will use, how well it will work and how it will all get integrated.

FLANNIGAN: That's where I see the difficulty. The disconnect is between giving student iPad to use and then making it relevant for the classroom. Like, you have to put curriculum on it or it doesn't mean anything. I mean, it's a toy for them. I mean, I hate to say that because I think it's forward thinking. I think it's great. I just - there's a lot of bugs to be worked out.

WESTERVELT: Perhaps the biggest bug is connectivity. Significant parts of the Coachella Valley are not covered by high-speed Internet. And even where it is available, many families here simply can't afford the service.

ELI SERVIN: So what are the teachers' goals to use it? Like, what are they planning to have us do with them? Are they going to be teaching us on there?

WESTERVELT: Tenth grader Eli Servin has a lot of questions. He's in a special education class at CV High School here. His mom died two years ago. He now lives with his grandmother. His teacher says he blossomed while using the iPad at school to help coordinate a recycling project. But at home, he doesn't have an Internet connection, except when his sister is around with her mobile phone he can tap into.

SERVIN: Most of my family have hotspots, so like I use their Wi-Fi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can't you go to McDonald's and, like, connect it there? A lot of people do that.

SERVIN: Yeah, yeah.

WESTERVELT: But McDonalds and cell phone hotspots don't always cut it. The district is using part of the iPad money from the bond measure to boost Internet capacity for its far-flung schools. But Superintendent Adams acknowledges that expanding connectivity to homes in the valley's many poor and rural areas will be much harder.

ADAMS: I've told my staff, if we have to park a bus in the neighborhood with a Wi-Fi tower on it or whatever, we will do that to make sure that our students are connected.

WESTERVELT: Connectivity will be one of many issues people in California and across the nation will be intensely watching as Dr. Adams, the former pop rocker, tries to pull off his biggest show yet. Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.