BROCKTON – It’s the third day of the new school year at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton and things are a little different. Sure, things are always a little different at the start of school – new clothes, new students, new inches added over the summer – but as Lyndsey Ballard’s Algebra 2 class gets under way, a student announces that she forgot to do part of her homework. She forgot to charge her iPad.
Cardinal Spellman, like a growing number of schools across the country — including Archbishop Williams in Braintree and Sacred Heart School in Kingston — has brought the tablet computer into the classroom. Each Spellman student was issued an iPad this year as the school moves away from traditional textbooks and worksheets and into the multimedia age. The school leases the $500 devices from Apple; they are insured against damage and loss, and parents were charged a $150 technology fee.
“A textbook is one-dimensional,” said principal Paul Kelly. “An iPad brings the content to life through interactive elements.”
And ultimately, the school believes, it will be cheaper than traditional textbooks, which can cost well over $100 and are, according to school’s president, John McEwan, outdated the moment they’re printed.
“As someone who used to teach from old textbooks, it would be nice to show the students there were presidents after Nixon,” McEwan said. “But the big thing was we wanted kids to have more control of their education. We’re trying to move away from schools as places where kids went to watch adults work.”
Tablets in the classroom got a big boost in January when Apple began releasing interactive digital textbooks through its iBooks store. The upside is that the e-textbooks, which feature interactive photos, videos, and graphics, are considerably cheaper – around $15 each.
The downside is that not many are available yet as publishers scramble to keep up. When iBooks launched, only eight were available. That number has since grown, and Spellman expects its students will have 25 to 50 percent of their textbooks in digital form this year.
The last days of the hardcover textbook are, for many, a time of nostalgia. No longer will there be the thrill of checking the names inside the cover, discovering that the book previously belonged to a crush – or a class clown who wrote a goofy name down as the past owner.
The project of trying to cover a book with a grocery bag will go into the “Remember when?” category forever. And so will a lot of back pain. Studies have shown that many students lug around backpacks that weigh as much as 25 percent of their body weight.
But while the technology is still very new in the classroom, the schools that have made the shift are having a hard time finding anything but upsides.
“It’s not replacing anything; it’s an additional tool,” said Pamela Desmarais, the president of Sacred Heart, where all the seventh- to 12th-graders were given iPads this year at no additional cost to their parents. “I see savings in cost in terms of books and printing. I see interaction and collaboration happening with the classroom.”
But you never know with students. They’re savvy, and with technology, they’re often savvier than the teachers (Spellman gave their teachers the iPads last winter so they could get up to speed). Having instant communication at your fingertips long ago proved problematic with smart phones, and most schools ban them from use during school hours.
While Sacred Heart allows students to customize their iPads, loading songs and photos onto the device, Spellman
wants them to be strictly for educational use and is using a program called Casper, which allows them to monitor what is on the iPads while they’re on school grounds and allows them to root out students who have installed apps that have not been approved. Angry Birds is a no-no.
Spellman students are thrilled with their new gadget. It’s got a cool factor, and their friends at other schools are jealous.
But it also has many excited about a new way of learning.
Melissa DePillo, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she’s more organized and more engaged.
“I already feel like my grades will be better because I’m more motivated to learn,” she said. “It’s just not that exciting to open a textbook. But I was playing around with my new biology textbook, and I clicked on an interactive map of DNA and it just jumped off the page.”
Jennifer Kelley, who has children in the 10th and 11th grade at Spellman, said that most parents worry about their children having too much “screen time,” but that the iPad in the classroom actually takes advantage of that problem.
“They have electronic devices in their hands at all times, so it’s something they want to use. That alone makes it a good decision. But beyond that there’s so much more. There’s an app where you can dissect a frog, and you don’t have to smell the formaldehyde.”
Burlington High School also went all-in last year and issued iPads to all of its students, and a host of trial and pilot programs are underway across the state.
Other schools require students to have some sort of computer, whether it be a tablet, laptop, or netbook.
The move to tablet computers is attracting a lot of attention, and many schools are keeping a close eye on the early adopters. Spellman recently hosted representatives from a couple dozen schools who wanted to see what they were up to.
“This is going to change the face of instruction in every way,” said Carmen Mariano, the principal of Archbishop Williams in Braintree, which required all students to either buy an iPad this year or lease one from the school for $150. “The fact that every student will be bringing an iPad to school every day means every classroom instantly becomes a computer lab the second they walk in the door.”
The research is still young, he said, and there is the risk of the unknown. But that’s part of the appeal.
“If the pioneers went West with maps and directions, we wouldn’t have called them pioneers,” he said. “We would have called them tourists. We’re pioneers. We have to be. We can’t prepare our students for the 20th century. We have to prepare them for the 21st century.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.