Students of Sharon Springs Central School aren’t as happy as usual about summer break this year.
Back in September, each student in grades 7-12 was issued an iPad. Now, as state testing winds down, they have to give the tablets back.
“They’re not all that happy about losing their iPads,” said school Business Manager Tony DiPace, “They got used to them.”
The iPad initiative was paid for by Capital Region BOCES, along with a few grants totaling more than $215,000. Roughly 150 devices, along with Verizon data plans, group insurance and a load of hefty, teen-proof cases were distributed and used largely instead of books.
Funding the initiative was an experiment for BOCES. Sharon Springs, a relatively small district in a relatively poor area, was the perfect place to test out iPad education.
After one school year, DiPace said the experiment was an unmitigated success. Most of the concerns expressed early on were unfounded.
“All year, we only had one of these things break,” he said, “and only a few got lost. They’re all equipped with GPS, so we just turned that on and found them.”
Aside from all the iPads breaking at the hands of careless students, parents at a pre-handout meeting worried about bad cell coverage in rural areas and kids using the iPads to look at inappropriate pictures. DiPace said some of the students had to “be in a certain room of the house” to send emails, but nearly all were able to use the Internet. As for inappropriate usage, he said some disciplinary action was taken early in the year.
“A few students searched for things they shouldn’t have been searching for,” he said, “but that was when they were seeing how much they could get away with.”
So the iPad experiment was a success in that problems were avoided, but the technology’s biggest upside, according to eighth-grade science teacher Sally Lauzon, came in the classroom. Over Lauzon’s 28 years at Sharon Springs, she ran up against one consistent problem.
“A microscope isn’t big enough for two heads,” she said.
When looking at things like pond slime under a microscope, she said a student might have a question about a certain organism. That student previously had to describe it while Lauzon tried to find it under the lens. Very rarely were questions answered to her satisfaction.
This year, during a lab, one student just picked up his iPad, put it to the eyepiece and took a picture. He pointing out the organism on the screen.
“When you give a student a tool like an iPad and a flexible learning environment like a lab, they become problem solvers,” she said.
She was also able to keep in contact with students outside of class through email. Previously, only about half her students could connect to the Internet at home. She said iPads leveled the playing field.
Wednesday afternoon, she was busy grading piles of state science tests. While she said the tests are one of the worst ways of measuring knowledge, her students are doing well, especially on concepts taught with iPads.
“This is where education needs to be going,” she said.
DiPace said the program will be expanded into sixth grade next year with the purchase of 25 new units. The younger kids will have to check them out at the beginning of each school day.
He also said the percentage of textbooks stored in digital interactive format will go up from 60 percent this year to 80 percent, saving the school as much as $150 per book.