iPads in Corvallis Schools: The Debate Unraveled

ipadkids1Corvallis School District’s latest drive to push technology in schools stalled after parents voiced concerns over the cost and wisdom of giving pupils iPads. The question now is whether this is a fatal error or merely cause for a reboot.

Superintendent Erin Prince and members of the 509J school district have called the project the 1 to 1 Apple iPad implementation, or the 1: World initiative. It envisioned issuing all Corvallis students third grade and above their own full-size, digital tablet (with mini-iPads going to students from kindergarten to second grade) for this school year.

A well-attended recent school board meeting, where parents and residents could ask questions and give testimonials to voice concerns over iPad implementation, appears to have halted the program for now. Prince recently said the district won’t go with full implementation this year, and wants to continue to work on the infrastructure and development with the help of staff and parents.

This movement isn’t just a newly discovered, trend-of-the-week project meant to bring Corvallis up to speed with other, national school districts already employing tablet technology in schools. It’s been in the works for a while, according to 509J Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bogatin.

“This is probably year three of the discussion. Some of it was more grassroots as grants came through our foundation. We also had individual teachers asking us to purchase iPads or some kind of tablet device. So this conversation and process began with teachers wanting more technology infused into the classroom,” Bogatin said. “I think we’re looking at this as reshaping education to include technology given its proliferation within our society, as well as it’s the way our kids engage.”

District staff began doing their homework on various platforms, while researching and visiting other districts around the country that had introduced iPads and digital curriculum into their schools. They noted that districts with similar deficits in Canby, Oregon and Mooresville, North Carolina made the jump to tablets and experienced positive results, including a significant rise in graduation rates each year.

The Plan
The superintendents and school board members had officially begun 1: World with a pilot program in the fall of 2012 for use in special education classrooms and a few other locations.

The first phase launched last year when students and teachers from select schools received these devices in science classes at the middle school and high school levels. A Wi-Fi connection was also installed throughout these participating schools.

This was the answer as school officials put it to “bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” and increase graduation rates that are just below 70% in the 509J school district. It was funded through “reduced and re-directed textbook and computer replacement funds.”

The second phase of the program began last October and saw about 2,000 iPad tablets issued to all students at Cheldelin and Linus Pauling middle schools and Mountain View Elementary School, as well as in all of the special education, English-only classrooms at Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools and Advanced Via Individual Determination (AVID) classrooms at both Crescent Valley and Corvallis high schools.

Most parents signed permission slips and paid the optional $45 for tablet insurance, while their children signed basic user agreements (agreeing not to use the portable tablets inappropriately, including to harass and/or bully other students) and the iPads were theirs. The planned infrastructure began to take shape.

The third phase of the initiative, which was to see iPads go to all students in the district this year created a major divide between the district and parents, who hadn’t yet seen tablets implemented in their respective schools.

One concern, which Bogatin was quick to dismiss, was that this technology would eliminate the use of paper textbooks and alter the traditional school setting for children.

“Technology is another tool we use as part of the education process, but not in place of doing science experiments, going out in nature and observing, or reading poetry,” he said.

But the district staff decided full implementation at this time wasn’t possible. Since, they have slowed their approach to gather more information for safety and security purposes in addition to fully assessing the program metrics.

Parents Opposed
The concerns raised by parents at the board meeting seem to have had some impact on halting Phase III – at least for the time being. Chief concerns are that overexposure of screen time may be unhealthy for children, that using digital devices may negatively affect students’ social interactions with peers and teachers, and that lower-income households and at-risk youth can’t afford the Wi-Fi, let alone other monetary upkeep involved with using an iPad away from school.

Andy and Rachel Roberts—who have two daughters, one of whom will start kindergarten next year—are skeptical about providing iPads to all students. They aren’t convinced this technology presents the only way to correct student performance issues, and want the school board to provide better data and research to define its intentions. This was a main reason they both shared testimonies during the school board meeting.

“I think for me the biggest issues are a one-size-fits-all solution for all different grades, and it’s not clear what problem they’re really trying to solve,” Andy said. “They’ve listed some fairly vague problems this will solve, whether it’s the disparity gap between the haves and have-nots. By just throwing a technology at it, I don’t think they’re really getting at the heart of the problem.”

Andy, an IT manager at Oregon State University, said he has worked closely with Apple vendors in the past. He thinks the district may have rushed its judgment when it decided to use iPads exclusively.

“Apple is particularly good at marketing products to schools and businesses, and I think it’s easy for administrators to get caught up in a lot of the claims without fully vetting what problems they’re trying to solve,” he said.

There’s also some danger in indoctrinating impressionable young students into working with one brand of products.

Andy stated in his testimony that board members should experience the technology for themselves firsthand at work, by doing away with physical paper and solely using iPads for one month, then record their own observations of the frustrations and benefits of the device. His question was, if these devices are to be used by children, shouldn’t the board and administrators be able to model how beneficial the technology is?

Rachel, a former speech pathologist in the district, applauded the board for its efforts but questioned whether spending the reported $1.2 million annually for iPads is the best use of allocated funds.

“Spending over $1 million each year when budgets are tight, funding is insecure, teachers are taking pay freezes, and instructional days are close to being cut. Is this the best way to serve all of our children? We want our kids’ experiences and competence with technology to be as flexible and as agile as technology itself. That means not putting all of our eggs in a singular device’s basket,” she said in testimony to the board.

Rachel questioned whether her daughter headed for kindergarten really needs an iPad, as she makes the transition to a school setting for the first time.

“My kindergartener does not need to be responsible, even in school, for a $500-plus device. Use the funds more judiciously for the middle and high schoolers where the technology might not be obsolete when they graduate,” she said.

These are only some of the questions raised that the district staff plans to address with more research, talking with teachers, and by conducting more meetings between parents and the school board by the time they attempt a 1:1 iPad rollout again.

Bogatin says most complaints the district has received are from parents whose children aren’t using digital tablets in school yet.

Have parents with children using iPads since last October in Cheldelin Middle School or in special education classes, for example, spoken out against 1:1 implementation?

“We have not heard any of these families come and testify. The testifying and concerns are coming from our families who haven’t implemented the technology into their schools,” Bogatin said.

iPad Benefits
One of those parents is Sara Gumm, who has children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade attending Linus Pauling Middle School. She had her own concerns about seeing Pads given to her kids for school last year.

“When it was announced that the schools would be loaning every student in LP an iPad, I was initially very wary of the idea,” Gumm said. “First and foremost I was worried about keeping three very expensive tablets safe and accounted for. However, after the initial hesitation, I’ve found them extremely beneficial for all my kids.”

Gumm says the iPads have helped her kids be better organized in knowing when homework assignments/tests are scheduled, has improved their grades and performance confidence, and has them more engaged in school than they ever were before.

“The learning done on the iPad is interactive and exciting in a way a textbook can’t be. It gives them the ability to immediately follow up on something that peaks their curiosity during homework. They can find word definitions, watch instructional videos that break down math problems, and use a Spanish/English translator to help with their dual language homework,” she said.

The Costs
Though an exact price tag still needs to be established, Bogatin estimates it will cost the district $1.2 million per year for the iPads, which includes professional development, application/software and an ongoing replacement cycle of three to four years. The district is still working on ways to make the costs of Wi-Fi at students’ homes and the iPad insurance more affordable to lower-income families, so their children can have the same tablet access as their classmates. Comcast reportedly offers a $10 per month Wi-Fi connection to low-income families that qualify. There’s also the possibility of getting after school places like the library and the Boys and Girls Club to extend their hours and have wireless access available to local students.

The school district seems content with the implementation plan, and the interaction and information sharing with concerned teachers, parents, and community members in all districts will only help improve this process going forward.

“We’re interested in ongoing dialogue and feedback on how best to utilize, how best to support students and families in this endeavor. We know some folks are cautious about the technology and we want to work with them. We want the feedback,” Bogatin said.

Bogatin also said the district is planning a technology event for February by the school and there will be more opportunities for parents to speak with the school board in the months ahead.

The fact that Phase III of full iPad implementation in all schools isn’t being rushed should reassure concerned Corvallisites that they’re being heard loud and clear. The district is listening.

by Patrick Fancher