As the effectiveness of technology in the classroom comes under increasing scrutiny, one California district encourages extensive use of iPads and other such digital readers, and says the benefits are clear and compelling.
A series of recent articles in the New York Times said research on the academic payoff of technological innovation in the class is slim to nonexistent. But Riverside Unified says some teens are studying more because they’re never without their e-readers. And their test scores are benefiting.
Riverside was one of the first school districts in California to implement the use of digital textbooks after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the Free Digital Textbook Initiative in May 2009. Riverside is also an innovator in how it is using this technology to put students in control of their own learning, said Jay McPhail, director of instructional technology at Riverside.
Students personalize their district-issued iPad, Android or other netbook with photos, videos and music. Or they can bring their own devices from home and download the assigned digital textbooks.
“Our kids are carrying this technology in pockets and purses,” McPhail said. “We used to confiscate it. Now we want them to use it.”
As a result, students are more attached to their e-readers than in other districts, which has helped boost academic performance at Riverside, he said. Some students told McPhail they had read their algebra text two or three times during the school year because they carried it with them always.
Addressing Road Blocks to Innovation
In an interview with EdSource, McPhail and his colleagues addressed five common misconceptions about challenges educators might face as they go down the digital road.
1. It’s too expensive to implement.
McPhail admits his district has received numerous grants, including an Enhancing Education Through Technology federal grant of $500,000 this fall to create a student data dashboard (which collects grades, attendance, test scores and such) and provide 7-inch Android tablets at a cost of $165 each to every student at Ramona High School. The district has also taken advantage of grants from private companies such as Verizon and Target.
Riverside also saves money by only providing e-readers to students who don’t already have them. In lower-income neighborhoods, the district has found 60 percent of students have such devices, when you include smart phones. In higher-income neighborhoods, 90 percent do.
And electronic textbooks are much cheaper than paper textbooks, so the district spends less after its initial investment. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Fuse Algebra I textbook for the iPad costs $49 compared with the paper price of about $120, McPhail said.
2. School districts would be unable to provide technical support.
Riverside found it didn’t need to hire tech troubleshooters, McPhail says, because students can mostly do it themselves. The district also supplied a paper textbook in each classroom in case there were technical glitches, said Monica Ward, who teaches sociology and also works as an academic coach at Ramona High School.
3. It’s difficult and expensive to provide teachers with technical training
The district thought the professional development needed to bring teachers up to the students’ level of technical expertise would take too long and be too costly, McPhail said. Instead, the district offers just two-to-four hours of training on uploading assignments, PowerPoint slides or flip charts.
“One of the most interesting ‘aha’ moments is when teachers realize they don’t need to know how to use the device,” Ward, the academic coach, said. “They just need to teach. The children figure it out.”
Teachers are also discovering students are more willing and likely to do their homework because of tablets’ interactivity, said Ramona High principal Susan Mills. Teachers give students practice tests, and the tablet tells them if they are correct.
When it comes time to take in-class tests, students use a website that doesn’t allow them to leave until the test is completed to prevent cheating.
Teachers at Ramona High also appreciate the school’s student data dashboard, which provides each student’s grades, attendance, test scores, and classes needed to meet course requirements for California’s public universities. When it’s time for the parent-teacher conference, teachers “don’t have to rifle through papers,” Ward said. “It’s right there on the device. It’s the first thing the students see when they turn on their tablet.”
Principal Mills emphasizes that her school prepared for a year or so before implementing the digital program this fall. “We’ve been using cell phone technology and piloted other devices to get where we are,” she said. “You jump in, but you jump in with a little bit of planning.”
4. Students might lose or sell their school-supplied electronic devices.
McPhail says the district’s loss rate with textbooks was 25 percent. With digital devices it is 5 percent or less. Students who didn’t already have a digital device treasured it and weren’t tempted to sell it, he said.
Ward agrees. “When they make it their own, they take better care of it, they don’t lose it, they bring it to school, they make sure it is charged,” she said. “We benefit from the fact that they take ownership of it.”
Middle and high school students, in particular, also appreciate no longer having to lug around five textbooks in their backpacks, Ward added.
5. Students will be distracted playing games instead of listening to their teachers.
“There is a lot of engagement; kids are on task,” Ward said. “They aren’t doing Facebook or games. Does it happen once in a while? Sure, but it’s not an epidemic.”
Students, McPhail says, understand that school officials will confiscate their device if they don’t act responsibly.
Riverside as a Model
Riverside is the only district in California employing technology at this level, McPhail believes. Two years ago it was non-digital and today it has 10,000 district-provided e-readers — about a quarter are Android tablets, a quarter are iPads and iPod Touches, and the rest are netbooks. Those e-readers plus ones provided by students means the program has reached about three-quarters of the district’s more than 40,000 students, from pre-kindergarten through high school.
McPhail said far about 70 California school districts have toured Riverside to look at the program.
He also carried out a controlled study on the impact of the iPad on Algebra I students who were taught by one of two teachers. Of the 10 classes these teachers taught, they used paper textbooks in eight and digital devices in two, which were randomly selected. Based on California Standards Test (CST) scores, 3 to 4 percent more students tested proficient or advanced in math compared with the prior year in the classes using paper textbooks; in the classes with digital textbooks, 19 percent improved to that level.
The district also has to devote some staff time explaining to parents the expanded learning opportunities offered digitally, such as access to libraries and videos that explain algebra problems. And they also talk without parents about how to protect students from inappropriate Internet content .
Teachers have volunteered to talk to parents in meetings that can last from two to six hours, says McPhail, because many teachers have been excited about the educational resources available to students online. However, teachers who do not want to use the devices can refuse to be part of the program, he added.
The teacher’s role has evolved into one of helping students make sense of available information, as well as instruction on how to determine if it’s accurate, McPhail said, something teachers using traditional textbooks also have to do.
“It’s about digital citizenship,” he said. “How do you use it as a tool to learn?”
KQED recently wrote a story on a Motion Math study about learning fractions on an e-reader.