8 Years Later: What I Learned from Launching One of the First 1:1 iPad Programs

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Eight years ago I joined a team of educators in launching one of the first 1:1 iPad programs. In a 6-12th grade school, we started with incoming 6th and 7th graders for the first two years and extended the ipad program school-wide in the 3rd year.

As we graduated our first cohorts of students we’ve been asking reflective questions about where we are now and where we are going with the program. For example, have our reasons for launching a 1:1 iPad program changed? How do the iPads support our school improvement goals? Is it necessary to teach students and faculty how to use the iPads in school?

Sustain Technology Support

At the time we launched the program there was mixed support. After multiple administrative turnovers, there has been no significant increase. Unfortunately, teacher professional development and use expectation have actually decreased. In a competitive educational market, the iPads are a way of attracting students, but within the building there continues to be pockets of resistance and hesitation. Not surprisingly, one of the most important things we found is that experience is our greatest teacher. In other words, the teachers and students who keep using the iPad to solve problems and extend learning tend to the the ones who are best at it.

To combat this, we’ve tried to build iPad support into our professional development plans. For example, when we work on content area text analysis, we demonstrate how to do it using an annotation app like Notability.

Notability ipad app for note taking

Additionally, as a mentor teacher, many of my first meeting with new teachers centers on how to use the iPads apps to communicate with students and extend lessons. Most importantly, we’ve found that by learning how to use a few apps deeply the students and faculty become more confident using them more creatively.

Redefine the Needs of the 1:1 iPad program Beneficiaries

For the first years just putting iPads into the kid’s hands was magical. Early on our students were both creative and cautious. The technology was new and the idea that they could be creators was more than enough inspiration. Fast forward a few years and the situation is much different. Our internal surveys support research that claims that students enjoy learning and stay more focused when using iPads (Mango, 2015).

However, most kids come to middle and high school with iPhones and may already have an iPad at home. Frequently, they are not approaching their school iPad as a new and exciting learning device, but instead expecting it to be a form of entertainment.

After nearly a decade of experience, we know that a classroom full of students who have an infinite amount of information and distraction at their fingertips can be exhausting to manage. Disengaged students will continue to entertain themselves but in a 1:1 iPad community, frustrated teachers may blame technology for off-task behavior. It’s a vicious circle that can suck the energy out of a 1:1 iPad program.  When schoolwork is missing students today will change up their reason from “the dog ate my homework” to “the dog ate my charger” and it’s easy to blame the technology for increasing distraction and further complicating the learning process.

Clearly, technology use is not a magic bullet for solving student engagement challenges. Students were off task in class 30 years ago, just in alternate ways — writing notes, throwing spitballs, drawing on desks… The challenge, however, is greater because the kids are already inclined to use their technology to distract and pacify themselves. Instead of the iPads building engagement, the danger is that they can create greater disengagement which may lead to significant frustration for everyone in the learning community.

Additionally, studies report that teachers are often resistant to truly integrating iPads into their classrooms because of the constraints of time and training (Clark and Luckin, 2012). If iPads are going to be more than a digital notebook than teachers need to know how to design and implement lessons that effectively integrate the technology. In the same way, students need to know how to use the technology in an appropriate way.  It’s important that they learn how to care for and respect the iPads.

They also need to be taught how to navigate search engines and web browsers for school use. While Google, Safari, and Chrome may be well within our adult comfort zone, digital natives need to understand the mechanics of how and when to use them in the classroom. One of my favorite lessons teaches students how to evaluate internet sources by searching for information on Dihydrogen Monoxide. It typically takes students no time to find sources that describe the danger that can come from interacting with the colorless, odorless chemical compound including all the ways people can die from it. After going through a checklist for evaluating internet sources, students discover that the information on the web pages are actually a hoax and that Dihydrogen Monoxide is in fact water.

Build Practitioner Capacity

Overall, our experience aligns with the research being published which suggests that iPads can improve classroom learning (Maich & Hall, 2016). It’s evident however, that the less a teacher uses technology, the less comfortable he or she will be with technology in their classroom. We have found this to be neither age-dependent nor years of teaching dependent. Instead, it is the most progressive teachers who appear to have the greatest success especially when they use the iPads as tools to support innovation in the classroom. It appears that success may depend on how the teachers integrate the technology.

It’s challenging when iPads have become a stand-alone initiative and distract from a greater school-wide improvement focus. In contrast, some of the most significant gains have been made in classrooms where the iPads are used to improve, measure, and monitor specific student learning goals. Initiative exhaustion in schools breeds burnout and frustration. Instead of promoting technology use as its own initiative, it appears that the real impacts come when it is used as a tool to support the needs of our increasingly diverse student community.

Highly motivated teachers can create incredible pockets of innovation that significantly impact student learning. Teachers excited about a personalized study, authentic audiences, and blended learning tend to integrate the iPads into what they are doing. At the same time, proficiency-based assessment and project-based learning have nudged some teachers to explore alternative summative tools. The iPads can be used to support students in long-term projects and in managing their time. More specifically, iPads are used for research, text annotation, formative practice, collaborative writing, review games, as well as, for creating videos, podcasts, and slideshows, and the list goes on for teachers using the iPads to support innovation within their classrooms.

Take Care of the Technologists

While methodology support is critical, equally important is having the technical expertise in-house. The people in our school who support the infrastructure and make things work within the building are rock stars. Having them available to research and support what is happening in the classrooms empowers everyone – faculty and students – to get out of their comfort zones.

Perhaps my best advice, especially when trying something new is to tell your technologist what you are up to. I’ve found that they are more than willing to hang out in my room and make sure things work. This empowers me to focus on the academic goals knowing that I have help should we experience any technology glitches. For them it’s a chance to see the iPad in action and because they move in and out of multiple classrooms each day, it builds their bank of ideas that can be shared throughout the building.

In Conclusion

Weather you are a decade in or just getting started with a 1:1 program, It’s important to reflect on the changing needs of a tech-rich environment.  The following questions can help you get started:

  • Do we have the backing we need to sustain a continuous and evolving program?
  • How have our beneficiaries needs changed and how can we address them proactively
  • Are we building practitioner capacity to ensure innovation and high levels of learning
  • Do we have the technologist support needed to keep our devices up and running?

After eight years, we can share that with the right foundation iPads can play a valuable role in achieving high levels of engagement and success for teachers and their students.


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Theresa Dixon

Theresa Dixon is a full-time high school English teacher who blogs about life as an educator at SchoolYardJunkies.com. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and four children.

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