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My son turned two this fall. By the time he starts kindergarten in three years’ time, I have no idea how he will be learning. The first computer I was exposed to in elementary school used 5 ¼-inch floppy discs; I’m not even sure he’ll be using a computer by then. Classrooms around the country are beginning to introduce students as young as five to iPads in an effort to determine if they will be useful in the classroom, and if they will be more cost effective for the functionality. Quite frankly I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. I plan on being involved in my son’s education. I’m going to be the kindergarten mom rallying support for construction at the high school he will attend in a decade. I’m going to be the middle school mom lobbying for the ed tech in the first grade classroom. So I need to know, where do I stand on technology as part of my baby’s education?
At the beginning of the current school year I had a chance to talk with Peter Robinson, the Director of Information Technology for the Auburn school department in Maine. With the support and help of his district and some federal money, Robinson’s staff is pioneering the use of iPads in the classroom–in kindergarten to be precise.
The pilot program began last spring. A literacy specialist in the district was having trouble getting through to some children. They weren’t responding to conventional or even unconventional methods, so she thought outside the box and brought her iPad in to school. Loaded with a select a few educational apps, it allowed her opportunities to reach children who had been untouched by other efforts. It allowed them learning opportunities that they just weren’t open to by other means. It also sparked many conversations in the right places, and at the right time.
Five teachers received iPads at the end of the 2010-11 school year. On loan to the district from Apple, they gave teaching staff and administrators a chance to see what the applications could be, no pun intended. There was great excitement to get the program up and running in the district’s 16 kindergarten classrooms, but rolling out the program took longer than anticipated. Not only did the school board and public need to be convinced of the benefits, but Apple needed time to figure out how to relate to school districts. For a company focused on the personal market, this was a big step. Robinson says they rose to the challenge.
In discussions here at GeekMom, one of the biggest concerns has been just how much time would be given over in the classroom to the iPad. At home, we as parents spend a lot of time fixating on what is and is not a healthy pastime. Would this take away from the more tactile experiences we all recall from Kindergarten? Robinson was clear to point out that the iPad is not an all day, every day tool — they still get the paint out and make a mess! Movement, play, tactile and traditional kindergarten methods are still very much in use; the iPad is now another tool in the arsenal of the teaching staff. The district is being very flexible with its program. No limits have been set in terms of minutes, because that goes against the idea of finding that teachable moment for the individual child. For the research portion of the project, the portion they hope will fund the next stage, there has of course had to be some consistency. They do prefer that staff use the iPads as a tool for 20-30 minutes over the course of the day. Recognizing the needs and limits of such young children, they also recommend that a session cap out at 20 minutes, which is a long time for a kindergartener.
At the end of the day Robinson is satisfied that the staff are well trained and need to be trusted and supported in their classrooms. They know when enough is enough. They know when the iPad would help teach a lesson, and when a trek outside to the playing fields would. The iPad is not intended as a “sit still and learn” device. Superintendent Tom Morrell has instructed staff to “find the apps that get them dancing, singing and playing.”
Turning such expensive devices over to small children was another concern, so I talked with Robinson about policies concerning the “home” of the iPads. For right now, the program stays within the school building. One of the fears, a very palpable one, is that the teacher is responsible for the devices, and that is too much pressure to place on one person. In addition, the Auburn community at large has shown concern for bullying from older children who might seek to get the devices for themselves. So for this year the devices are locked up in the school, a policy which will be evaluated come summer. At this point both staff and parents will weigh in on the issue, and then maybe the iPads will go home with the kids. Perhaps every night, perhaps only for special projects. The idea with this, as with much else in the program, is that the decision will come organically from the classroom and not from an administrative decision. The same thing happened with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), which sought to “equip all students and teachers in grades 7 to 12 with personal learning technology statewide.” Robinson argues that we cannot let fear and trepidation stand in the way of what can be accomplished. The only breakage so far has been from a staff member carrying one with a stack of books. The children’s iPads all have specially-designed cases. They are rubberized and bounce when they hit the ground. Robinson also points out that when a kindergartener drops something, it doesn’t exactly have a long fall!
After speaking with Peter Robinson, the idea of the iPad as a tool in the teacher’s arsenal excites me. Visit GeekMom again tomorrow to read the second half of my discussion with Robinson, in which we talk about how the teaching staff is taking to the program and the ways in which the district is supporting them in making the iPad an effective tool.