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Wellesley considers requiring iPads for all fifth-graders

A scene from a school near Paris last month reflects the growing use of tablet computers in educational settings.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE

A scene from a school near Paris last month reflects the growing use of tablet computers in educational settings.

iPads could be required tools for all fifth-graders in the Wellesley school district next fall if administrators decide to expand a pilot program designed to put one of the Apple tablet computers in the hands of every student.  

The district is holding a series of public meetings to discuss the proposal, with a forum for parents Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Wakelin Room at the Wellesley Free Library, and presentations at school PTO gatherings over the next week or two.

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In the fall of 2011, fifth-graders at Schofield Elementary School were each assigned an iPad as part of the 1:1 Technology Pilot, supported by a grant from the Wellesley Education Foundation. The program has been so successful that the district is considering implementing it for all fifth-graders starting in the fall, officials said.

“The world is changing,” said School Committee chairwoman Diane Campbell. “Technology has become so much a part of teaching and learning.”

The program would come with a cost to families, who would have to supply their children with iPads. The district is trying to absorb some of the burden, said Superintendent David Lussier, and families who cannot afford to rent or buy an iPad would have one provided by the district.

“These are the kinds of 21st-century skills we know our kids need right now to be successful,” said Lussier. “We think it’s an investment that’s going to help develop the skills they’re going to need long-term to succeed outside of school.”

The School Committee is still discussing the pilot’s expansion, said Campbell, and she expects the panel to decide whether to include it in its budget proposal for next fiscal year by the end of this month.

‘These are the kinds of 21st-century skills we know our kids need right now.’ - David Lussier, Wellesley superintendent

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Specific cost figures were not available last week, but according to school officials, the expansion would require the creation of a program-coordinator position, and the district would need to purchase iPads for children whose parents cannot afford them. Part of that cost, said Campbell, could be offset by reallocating capital funds used for laptop replacement to purchase iPads. 

There are 405 fifth-grade students in Wellesley this school year, according to the district. Based on the district’s free and reduced lunch rates as well as data from similar districts, officials are conservatively estimating that 10 to 15 percent of students will need financial support to participate in the program.

The district would offer families two options for supplying their children with iPads: Enroll an existing device that meets minimum requirements, or lease one to own. Details about the program are posted on the district’s website, www.wellesley.k12.ma.us.

Families that choose to enroll an existing device would have their iPad reformatted with a standard suite of apps and a management profile. Parent training workshops would be available, as would be short-term loaners if the family iPad is temporarily unavailable. The district would charge families a $40 fee to cover the apps and management software license.

In the second option, families could lease one through the district for $155  per year. Students would keep the iPad for four years, and would have an option to buy the unit for $1 at the end of eighth grade.

The leased iPads would come with Retina Display, a standard suite of apps, a case, a management license, four years of repair and replacement, and accidental damage coverage for up to two incidents, and access to short-term loaners.

At Schofield, three classrooms of fifth-graders are using iPads this year, and the tablets have opened up new ways of teaching, learning, and assessment, according to Rob Ford,  the school district’s director of technology, who has been involved with leading the pilot program.  

Students working on math problems, for example, use software to record themselves talking about their thought process while solving a problem, and that recording is transmitted directly to the teacher. The system offers a level of insight into each child’s progress that was not possible before, Ford said.

The iPads also allow teachers to individualize their teaching, Ford said. For example, reading assignments might have some children using different books than their classmates, either because they are advanced or because they need extra support. With physical books, the other students could tell who was ahead or behind, while the iPad looks the same for everyone.

“A library of electronic reading materials targets to each student’s reading ability in a way you didn’t have before, and you can do it in a way that has no stigma,” he said.

Providing an iPad for every student also would close the gap for children who do not have access to technology at home, according to the district.

Some parents have raised concerns over cyberbullying and the effect of increased use of technology on children’s socialization skills, said Campbell.

The district is aware of these issues, she said. The program calls for the iPads to be configured so that children do not have full access to the Internet, and the district would work to educate students and parents on how to stay safe online. Web browsing on the devices would be limited in accordance with the Children and Internet Protection Act, both at school and at home, according to the district.

“Students are not just going to be handed an iPad,” said Campbell.

As for worries over technology usurping face-to-face learning, she said, teachers would be thoughtful about when and how iPads are used.

Families who do not want their children to have their ­iPads at home will be allowed to opt out of the take-home portion of the program; their use at school would be required, however.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.
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