Two Greenwood seniors were thrilled at the start of the school year when their Spanish teacher told their class they would use iPads each day.
Claire Gallman and Austin Schlenz, both seniors in Jorge Garcia’s Spanish IV class at Greenwood Community High School, envisioned spending the year streaming YouTube and other videos in class instead of listening to lectures. Garcia also planned to have students create digital poems filled with music and scrolling text that they could post online as part of the course’s poetry unit.
But Garcia’s class quickly ran into problems.
Watching educational YouTube clips, for example, meant signing onto the Internet, but students were continually knocked offline. And even when all of the students could connect, some still couldn’t watch the video Garcia had assigned because of the device’s settings, Gallman and Schlenz said.
Using the iPads to complete assignments that involved a lot of writing was another problem, as students didn’t have keyboards to use with the devices and typing quickly on the iPad screen is difficult, the seniors said.
Eventually Gallman started forgetting to bring her iPad to class. She started to think of the device the same way she thought of an inches-thick literature book she’d once been assigned in an English class — something that was used occasionally but not worth carrying to school every day.
“I would use it at home, for games and shopping and stuff. And sometimes I’d leave it there,” she said.
School districts across Johnson County have been announcing ambitious plans to get more devices in their students’ hands. Center Grove schools will spend more than $1 million for iPads next year for all of its 2,300 high school students, and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools is spending more than $500,000 to buy iPads for its nearly 1,100 sixth- through 12th-graders. Franklin schools has upgraded its Internet capacity and plans to launch a program allowing all kindergarten through 12th-grade students to bring their own smartphones, tablets and computers to use in class.
Garcia’s Spanish IV class was one of four pilot classrooms at Greenwood meant to help educators decide the best way to start blending technology such as tablets and computers with traditional classroom lessons. Garcia, who’s always been interested in technology, volunteered to participate in the pilot and next year wants more money to purchase additional iPads for his Spanish III students.
He said computers and tablets have a place in the classroom: The Internet has too many resources for research and instructional videos to be ignored, and devices allow teachers to create interactive lessons, such as the poetry project, that students can complete or review outside school.
But what’s still unclear is what kind of devices are the best for students. And it’s also not enough to expect the students to start using iPads or other devices for their schoolwork immediately. Teachers have to be able to show students how to use the devices and what is expected of them, he said.
Otherwise, the iPads are no more useful in class than textbooks, Garcia said.
“(Schools) can’t expect the technology is going to engage the students,” he said.
For him to be able to use iPads effectively with his students, he needs to know more than his students about how they work and how his students can use them to master Spanish, Garcia said. That’s why this year he’s started a blog — a first for him — and is taking an Indiana Department of Education course on combining technology with traditional classroom teaching. This summer he wants to join Twitter and start contacting other teachers to find out how they use tablets in their classrooms.
When teachers talk about the importance of technology in the classroom, they often talk about developing students’ critical thinking and research skills. Instead of lecturing students on a topic, they want to assign them a research paper or group project and have the students use a laptop or iPad to access resources that are online or have been emailed to them.
Then the teachers want their students to use the devices in class and at home to create more innovative and engaging presentations that anyone in the world could access.
But teachers first need to know enough about the devices and how they can be used to show the students specifically what’s required of them, Garcia said.
Gallman and Schlenz said one problem is that some teachers are proficient in using the devices while others know very little.
Gallman has used an iPad in other courses such as calculus, and sometimes the iPad unexpectedly will reset itself or go offline. Teachers don’t always have quick solutions to those problems so that the devices can be used in class, and that frustrates Gallman to the point where she doesn’t want to use the device.
“It’s hard when you have a lot of different technology areas and only a few people to work on them. It’s not their fault, it’s that they can only do so much,” she said.
School officials are reviewing how well the devices were used in the four middle and high school pilot classes, and eventually administrators will have to decide the best way to provide devices for students to use in class. And while Gallman and Schlenz enjoyed having the iPads, they don’t believe the school district needs to purchase them for every student.
Students can use smartphones or other devices they already own and are used to using to find quick online answers to questions in class. And that saves time that would be wasted if a school-provided tablet suddenly stopped working.
“It was almost distracting at some points. If I couldn’t use it, I’d get (online) and play a game,” Gallman said.