Two years ago, Burlington High School began requiring each of its students to use an iPad for school work, putting the system at the forefront of a growing movement to bring more technology into the classroom. The project has since expanded to middle school and there are plans to assign iPads to younger students.
Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent for learning in the Burlington public schools, answered questions about the project for the Globe.
First some basic background: How many students at Burlington High School are using iPads, and how has the program expanded in Burlington over the last couple of years?
Burlington High School has an enrollment of just over 1,000 students and for the past two years each student has had an iPad. This past year we also expanded our 1:1 initiative to the middle school, which is grades 6, 7, and 8 (1:1 means one web-enabled device for each student). We also had pilots at the elementary school this past year where one first-grade classroom in each of our four elementary schools had iPads and our grade 4 and 5 classrooms at Pine Glen Elementary had iPads.
What about cost? How much is it costing the school system? Do families have to pay anything?
The district is spending approximately $190,000 on iPads each year. It is recommended that parents of high school students buy insurance from a third-party insurance company to insure the devices, since the high school students take them home. The cost of the insurance is less than $50 a year.
How has the introduction of iPads changed education for students?
I think that this certainly varies from one student to the next, but overall I would say that students have learned to change their workflow a great deal and started to substitute some of the ways that they access, create, and submit their work. In addition, I think that there has been an increase in the amount of opportunities to be more self-directed learners. The access to the technology allows for more blended-learning opportunities, where students are able to learn independently and go more in depth on a topic that interests them. It also allows some students to work independently to catch up in areas that they may be behind on.
What are your biggest lessons from the experience?
I think we have all learned about the importance of being flexible and adaptable. It was a big step to go from a high school that did not allow mobile phones in the hands of students five years ago and then turn around and distribute a mobile device to every student in every classroom.
One of the biggest lessons we have learned is that we need to rely on our students a lot more than we have in the past when it comes to helping us make big changes like this. They have been a tremendous resource to helping us make this transition. Additionally, our knowledge of the commitment of our teachers to preparing our students for the “real world” was reaffirmed. They have taken on the challenge of integrating technological resources into our classrooms with the knowledge that students who can access and integrate these resources seamlessly will be at an advantage.
What is the feedback you’ve gotten from students, parents, and teachers?
The majority of the feedback has been positive. Our school community has taken a great deal of pride in the fact that Burlington is looked at as a leader in this area. Our students, parents, and teachers appreciate the availability to instructional resources that is present in Burlington. Of course, we also have some concerns about the need for balance in regards to technology use and the fact that we do not want students staring at a computer screen all day. We agree with this premise and think that all communities should be engaging in similar conversations, whether their students have access to devices in school or not.
You’re pretty active on social media and in education circles. What sort of response are you getting from other schools?
I think social media is learning media. It has allowed me to connect and learn from and with educators from all over the world. It has helped me to learn about best practices in employing technology and countless other educational topics. In addition, it is a great vehicle for communication within a local school community. The response from other schools has been great. I get frequent calls from other school administrators to help them get started with social media in their school communities.
What are the next steps for expanding technology in the classroom?
Next year every student in grades 1 and 4-12 will have iPads, and the plan is to have iPads in all grades for the 2014-2015 school year.
Some educators and tech company executives have urged Massachusetts to enhance its courses for technology, computer science, and code writing. What do you see happening in that area?
I think that this is clearly an area that we can do a better job with in Massachusetts. This part of the country is looked upon positively for technological innovation, and we need to make sure that our students are being prepared with skills that would put them on a pathway for employment in these companies. It would be interesting to hear how many recent hires of these Massachusetts-based tech companies are products of our schools. We would be crazy not to listen to companies in [Massachusetts] when they give us guidance in helping our students leave our schools with more marketable skills. I think that every school in the state should rethink its technology offerings and how they are instructed.
In addition, I think we should look at coding in the same light that we look at foreign language. I mean no offense to foreign language instructors when I say this, but I think it is just as critical.