Buffalo, NY Area School District Plans iPad Pilot Project for Fifth Graders

The Williamsville Central School District plans to issue 30 iPads and 1 Apple TV to each of the eight fifth grade teams in the district’s four middle schools. According to Peter Ciarelli, Assistant Superintendant for Technology Services, each team of teachers will have the iPads at their disposal, rather than issuing an iPad to each student. The fifth grade was chosen for the pilot because the team structure was well-suited to sharing the iPads.

The Williamsville Central School District is the largest suburban school district in Western New York. The district is located just outside of Buffalo, NY. There are 10,300 students enrolled in the district, and 825 students enrolled in fifth grade (disclosure: my son is one of those fifth graders).

Mr. Ciarelli is a Mac user. He has an iMac on his desk and a framed image of Apple’s “Think Different” print ad featuring Kermit and Jim Henson on his office wall. He takes his iPad to meetings, and even claims to love typing on its keyboard!

Although Mr. Ciarelli is in the midst of organizing a pilot project that will put iPads in the hands of his district’s fifth graders, the project has little to do with his preference for all things Apple. He describes the pilot, saying it’s “not about the iPad and not about the apps.” His surprising words make one thing clear: he is not afraid to “think different.”

The pilot project is not about giving students the latest and greatest tech device, or preferring Macs over PCs. Mr. Ciarelli is interested in the responsible integration of technology in the classroom. Specifically, he wants to better understand “what happens when you give your whole classroom devices that give them instant access to information?” He continues, “even if we just give them Google Earth, iBooks, and a browser, it is going to change everything.” Training students to use the iPads improves their tech literacy. It also helps them to be better digital citizens by ensuring they become adept at managing, rather than being managed by, technology.

Additionally, Mr. Ciarelli is intrigued by the iPad’s ability to give teachers and students “fast feedback.” The classroom set up will help make this possible. Each team of iPads will be wirelessly linked to one Apple TV, which should enable the teacher to conduct a lesson that is visible to the students, but also allow a particular student to share his work right from his seat. This set up, which sounds like the 21st century equivalent of being called to the chalkboard, has the potential to keep students engaged in learning and help teachers find weak spots in understanding very quickly.

Mr. Ciarelli hopes that the iPads will also foster “kids teaching kids.” He agrees with the artists, musicians, and members of the workforce who see the iPad as a tool for content creation as well as content consumption. For example, a teacher could assign students to create a tutorial one day, then require them to teach its content to other students as part of a follow-up lesson.

The teams will have the freedom to decide how they want to divide up the time with the iPads. Even though they will have to share within the team, according to Mr. Ciarelli, “those teachers know they will have 30 iPads that no one else can sign out.”

He draws a useful parallel between the iPads and the classroom projectors that teachers in the district frequently use during lessons. “When we first got the projectors,” Ciarelli explains, “a teacher had to sign up for it in advance. If that projector was yours and you know you only had it for the day, you were likely to build the entire lesson around the projector.”

It is Ciarelli’s hope that since the the fifth grade teachers will have regular iPad access, the devices will be extremely useful, but not overly influential when it comes to lesson planning.

To help the iPad pilot run smoothly Mr. Ciarelli relies on the district’s technical and instructional specialists, who are teachers on special assignment. The pilot’s success relies not only on the commitment from the teachers and students, as the pilot will receive guidance from these specialists, as well as a team from the Erie County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).

On a practical level, the district plans to put a protective case on each iPad. When they are not in use the iPads will be stored on carts, where they can be safely transported between classrooms and charged at the end of the school day. Each iPad will also have Apple’s Find My iPhone app installed.

According to Mr. Ciarelli, funding the pilot project was possible in part because New York State allowed school districts to pool the funds allocated for textbooks, libraries, software and hardware for the first time during the 2011-12 school year. This flexible approach means that a school district can better address its individual needs on a year-to-year basis. If a school district buys iPads or other technology this year then next year it may choose to invest the money in library books or software upgrades.

The district plans to train the teachers in early February, and Mr. Ciarelli hopes the students will be using their iPads by the end of that month.

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About Emily: Emily is a freelance writer who loves discovering new apps whenever she can pry the iPad away from her children or husband. You can contact her via Twitter: @whatwentwrite

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=541820336 Nancy Cook

    This is such an exciting initiative—and hopefully only the beginning!