Buffalo, NY Area iPad Project Pleases Teachers, Students

Last January I spoke with Peter Ciarelli, Williamsville Central School District Assistant Superintendent for Technology Services, about the school district’s planned iPad Pilot project for fifth grade classrooms. This week I visited Ms. Darlene Prowse’s classroom (disclosure: my son is her student) at Casey Middle School in East Amherst, New York to get the teacher and student perspectives about this project.

Not surprisingly, the iPad is a big hit with Ms. Prowse’s 5th graders, but rather than revolutionizing how the students learn, the iPad has proven, at least in her classroom, to support rather than reinvent the educational goals in the classroom.

The WCSD purchased enough iPad 2s so that every fifth grade team at the district’s four middle schools could each have 30 iPads. Each of the district’s eight fifth grade teams of teachers share the iPads, which allows students to use them across subject areas. Each team also has access to an Apple TV, which is connected to a projector at the front of the room. This arrangement helps students and teachers work more collaboratively in the classroom.

As Mr. Ciarelli predicted, “it’s not about the apps.” While the students do use apps — ShowMe, SockPuppets, Reel Director (used for a recent poetry project) and Stack the States are particular favorites — they frequently use the iPad for individualized access to Safari. Through Safari the students can check into WITS (the district’s online information tracking system) to take a teacher-designed quiz or study vocabulary terms. Students can take advantage of any web-based educational site without leaving their seats. They have also learned how to use DropBox to sync work from the iPad to a home computer.

Ms. Prowse also uses Socrative to test their knowledge. She praised the iPad’s immediacy and ability for differentiating what the students know and don’t know. Since the students get “fast feedback” (another one of Mr. Ciarelli’s buzz words), teacher and students alike are better able to target trouble spots in their understanding.

Ms. Prowse’s class is currently using the iPad’s video camera to shoot their own commercials for products they’ve created. They shared one with me, called the Candy Cooler. From watching the video I learned that the Candy Cooler, a must-own item for any burgeoning sugar addict, keeps hard candy from getting sticky and gross.

The students’ reactions to the iPad’s entry into their classroom was resoundingly positive. As a group, the students found the iPads to be “fun” and “something to look forward to after working hard in class.” One student noted, “There aren’t enough computers in the classroom for everyone, but with the iPads each of us has our own.”

While 12 out of the 14 students I spoke to reported having an iPad at home, one student offered that he liked being able to learn about the technology in school because he didn’t have the device at home. Interestingly, two of the 12 mentioned that their families purchased the iPads after the start of the pilot program.

Ms. Prowse praised her students’ iPad etiquette. Not only have they treated them with the necessary care, but the pilot project has given her students the opportunity to learn important tenets of digital citizenship.

For example, peeking at another students files is not permitted. “The kids have been so respectful of everyone’s work,” she explained. Because different students use the same iPad at various times throughout the day, Ms. Prowse added, “The students know not to look at each others work on the iPad, even though they could. It would be like going through someone’s locker.”

The students also diligently ask permission before “taking over” the Apple TV connection. “They could just hop on at any time,” she explained, “but they don’t.”

The addition of the iPads to the classroom has given her students the opportunity to show her how responsible they can be, which is arguably as valuable as gaining familiarity with iOS.

There have been a few glitches, which relate mostly to the way the iPads are set up for group use. Ms. Prowse reported that the Apple TV doesn’t always play nice with Sock Puppets, but that she can’t do the troubleshooting herself (e.g. update to the newest version of iOS in the classroom) at this time.

A student added that she is concerned she might lose work that’s on the iPad at the end of the year when the iPads are re-imaged. Perhaps the school district can devise a way to help students “clean out their digital lockers” at the end of the year so they can share their work with their families.

According to Ms. Prowse, the fifth grade won’t lose access to the iPads when they matriculate next fall as sixth graders, and the district plans to purchase more iPads for the incoming class of fifth graders as well. These youngsters are well on their way to becoming a new class of digital native — those who can barely remember life before touch screens and gesture controls.

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