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Tablets | Features

How 5 Inspiring Tablet Classrooms Are Changing Education

There’s no one way to use tablets in the classroom. We look at some of the most creative uses from today’s top tablet educators.

Tablet Classrooms

Tablets are everywhere in education these days — or at least it seems that way. Since the release of the original iPad just four years ago, tablets have reached about 3.5 million students, a number that grows every year. But numbers alone don’t tell the story. To find truly innovative uses of tablets, we looked far and wide for groundbreaking educators who have deployed their devices in a variety of environments, from special education to the flipped classroom. Read on to discover how these tech pioneers are using tablets to shape and improve the modern educational experience.

It’s Not About the Device

Who: Shawn McCusker, high school world history and American studies
What: 1-to-1 iPads
When: Since September 2012
Where: William Fremd High School, Palatine, IL
Why the program is effective: McCusker lives by the motto, “It’s not about the device.” To that end, he doesn’t use his iPads to do things in new ways, but rather to do new things in ways not possible before going 1-to-1. 

Using cloud collaboration tools like Google Drive and Schoology, McCusker assigns students individual projects that can be evaluated by their peers. “Think back to how much feedback you got on an assignment from a teacher,” he said. “One piece of feedback? Meaning in the whole class, there’s 30. Using technology, I can take the amount of feedback in the class from 30 pieces of individual feedback to 750 individual events of feedback.” 

The process, however, is still collaborative, although not in the ways some educators might think. “I think far too many people think that collaboration is work that is done together,” he said. Instead, students spend more time improving their own work and helping others refine theirs. “It’s constructivism that’s not individual,” he said, “It’s community construction.” 

When every student is an active researcher, the entire class benefits from this constructivism. Before the iPads, McCusker said, he would typically introduce a total of 75 outside sources to students before the Christmas break. Today, “That’s like five days,” he said. “A year ago before Christmas we had used 5,000. We can collect and process in a two-day period as a class around 100 Web-based academic sources.” 

McCusker impresses on students what makes a good source, and using that knowledge, students frequently surprise him with what they bring to the table. Often, his students’ writing is similar to or better than when they were using laptops. “I give zero credence to the concept that the writing that happens on an iPad is less,” he said. “I’ve seen it again and again in schools. You know what’s bad on an iPad? Formatting. But the writing and the words that come out of your mouth are in no way hindered by the device.” 

In the end, McCusker believes that the personalized, constructed experiences that students are creating may be leading to deeper learning. “I don’t have concrete assessment data other than final exams,” he said. “But what I can tell you is that my students are way more likely to invoke previous knowledge when it’s knowledge they constructed the meaning for, than they were to evoke knowledge when it was, ‘If you remember back to Mr. McCusker’s eighth slide on his PowerPoint.’ ” 

Next year, McCusker will get a chance to put his pedagogical model to the test when he transfers schools and takes up a 1-to-1 program using Chromebooks rather than iPads. “I’m 100 percent certain that I could reproduce the results that I’m having with Chromebooks,” he said. “The things I’m doing are not iPad specific. I work really hard to define what is good learning, not just: ‘Can I use the iPad?’ The things I’m doing are the products of a connected classroom.”

A Special Tablet for Special Ed

Who: Cynthia Valencia-Kimball, secondary-level speech pathologist
What: A mix of iPads and SmartEdPads, an Android-based tablet for special education
When: iPads since 2010; SmartEdPad starting this year
Where: Valencia-Kimball works with groups of two to three students at Burkholder Middle School, Eldorado High School and Las Vegas High in Clark County (NV) School District
Why the program is effective: Valencia-Kimball was one of the first special education educators to jump onboard with tablets back in 2010, when she held her first iPad. The gains in engagement she saw made her an instant convert. “I’ve done this for 40 years and this is the most improvement I’ve seen,” she said.
In the past few years, she has purchased her own iPad for professional use. She works at the secondary level for Clark County and also has private practice where she helps students as young as preschoolers.

While not operating in a traditional classroom setting, Valencia-Kimball typically teaches small groups, facing the challenge of providing highly personalized instruction (often based on a student’s IEP) when her time and attention is both split and limited. In addition to working frequently with students on the autism spectrum, Valencia-Kimball sees a lot of articulation, stuttering and language cases. “I need a lot of hands-on materials,” she said, “and tablets certainly meet that bill.” 

Beyond her usual work with iPad apps like Proloquo2Go and Kidioms, an idiom-based game, Valencia-Kimball was selected as one of just three teachers in her district (and one of only 500 nationwide) to pilot the SmartEdPad, a tablet customized with special education populations in mind. The tablet comes preloaded with about 150 special ed-specific apps, including its own version of Proloquo2Go. 

The tablets allow customization within apps, so that Valencia-Kimball can gear each device for an individual student. Typically, she said, it’s as simple as changing the preferences within each app before she sees a student. This personalized approach has led to solid improvements. "I attribute it to their memory just improving in general, and also they’re more organized because they know which apps they can use,” she said. “You can get to a point where you can actually let them select which ones they want to do, because there’s just a variety of things that are done with each app.”

Those reluctant to speak, for example, can be surprisingly receptive to giving it a try if they’re using technology. “They love it being recorded, hearing themselves on a karaoke machine, and listening to themselves improve,” Valencia-Kimball said. “I’ve had kids speak who have not spoken before. Sign language is not universal, so it’s always better to have a child speak. In fact, I have two selective mutes and one of my selective mute students speaks so much more now that they’ve used these tablets.”

Teaching ELLs Language and Confidence

Who: Erin Whisler, second- and third-grade teacher
What: Three iPads per classroom
When: Since 2011
Where: Wilshire Park Elementary, St. Anthony, MN
Why the program is effective: Not every classroom is fortunate enough to be at 1-to-1 quite yet, and for teachers with fewer devices, it’s all about strategic use. Whisler is a looping teacher who sees her students two years in a row. Within her class of 24, she also teaches an ELL cluster of seven students of different ranges and abilities. Two of her students had no previous exposure to English before her class. 

During one-on-one time with her ELL students, Whisler works with sight-word apps and, frequently, with Explain Everything, which she uses to allow students to visually show comprehension of a story they’ve just read. “The students would draw a picture of what the students thought happened in the story,” she said, “and they could record their voice, which was really beneficial to my kids who still had limited English skills, and then they were able to present to each other.” 

When it comes time for whole-group instruction, Whisler has all of her students follow along with the main lesson as often as possible, but afterward transitions the ELL cluster to the iPad to work on a preassigned task, such as an e-book or an activity on basic literacy apps like VocabularySpellingCity, Word BINGO or Sight Words. “During whole group lessons, I would have [ELLs] read the same story” as other students in the class, Whisler said. “But when it came to comprehension check time, I would have them do something different on their iPads because the comprehension obviously wasn’t there for the grade-level texts.” 

Whisler’s ELL students’ results from the end-of-year NWEA assessments showed marked improvement, jumping 47 points — almost 2 1/2 years of growth — in a year. “When they came into second grade, my two ELL kids who didn’t have exposure [to English] scored the lowest possible score on their NWEA assessments in the fall of 2012 — they were below a first-grade level,” Whisler said. “This spring, they are both a few points away from the third-grade benchmark in both math and reading.” 

One of the greatest benefits of having the iPads in class has been the level of comfort it has provided these students. “It felt like they had a purpose, especially my ELL kids,” Whisler said. “They knew coming into it that they had a task and they knew that their learning didn’t look the same as everyone else’s, but they were learning.” 

In fact, she said, the extra experience with the iPads began to pay off as the year progressed. “They were very proud because they had more experience in the iPads than the other kids did. So when it came time to do something, or to look for an app on the iPad, or to use the camera to hunt for words around the classroom, those kids had the leadership skills to be able to build relationships with the kids in the classroom, even with just the limited English that they had.”

Transparency and Collaboration

Who: Jamie Back, high school math teacher, and Nathan Johnston, eighth-grade science teacher
What: 1-to-1 Fujitsu Q702 Windows 8.1 tablet PCs
When: Fully 1-to-1 since 1996; 1-to-1 with tablets since 2003
Where: Cincinnati Country Day School (OH)
Why the program is effective: The nation’s first fully 1-to-1 school still boasts an impressive tablet program that has created a relaxed culture of familiarity with the technology. “Kids that come into this school learn pretty quickly how to use the computers,” said Johnston. “It just becomes part of the school day and that’s just how you assimilate into the school, by using the computers. It’s just how we teach.”
Some teachers have used the tablets, which feature a detachable keyboard and full desktop access, to go paperless. Homework and assignments can be completed, submitted and graded right on the devices, often via Microsoft OneNote

“Grading is so much easier,” said Johnston, who just wrapped up his ninth year of 1-to-1 at the school. “I don’t have to bring home a huge stack of papers. I can just click from one kid to the next, grade, and a lot of times I can get through a whole homework assignment in less than an hour and have those grades automatically sent back to those kids.” 

The shared nature of the program allows teachers to track how their students are grasping material without high-stakes assessments. Back said, “If I had a student that was struggling I could go look in their OneNote notebook (because they’re all shared) and be more proactive. It’s a great way to collaborate with students, but also a great way to give them some feedback on what they’re doing. It’s very transparent, and they know it’s transparent.” 

Back, a first-year 1-to-1 teacher, also uses the technology to perform a number of inquiry and investigation activities with her students. During a recent 3D printing exercise, Back had her geometry students design and print a 3D shape. “But I also had them snip a picture of the 3D shape from the software, label dimensions and compute the volume,” she said. Afterward, she had students paste the picture and their annotations directly into their notebooks to study from later. “It’s not just something they’ve done off in a software package in a file they saved that they never look at again,” she said. “It really changes the learning experience.”

Flipping the Classroom to Unleash Creativity

Who: Daniel Welty, 11th-grade physics and astronomy teacher
What: 1-to-1 iPad cart
When: Since spring 2013
Where: Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA
Why the program is effective: Last spring, when he received a technology grant he had applied for, Welty took a big gamble. Starting from almost no classroom technology, in a school without a formalized BYOD or 1-to-1 program, he brought in a full set of classroom iPads, went completely paperless and immediately began flipping the classroom. 

“It was a pretty daring venture,” he admitted. “I kind of discovered all this very quickly.” Through his relationships on Twitter, and plenty of encouragement from flipped pioneers, Welty jumped right into creating video lessons and upending the very foundations of his classroom. He stopped lecturing in class. He moved his desk to the back of the room and grouped students in fours at lab tables. Now, he said, “The students are really in control of their learning, and are really very self-directed about it. I do more listening to make sure they’re doing things correctly than interjecting.” 

Since Welty prioritizes learning standards, he’s not married to any particular format for lab activities and projects, an approach that has greatly expanded how students are showing mastery. “I wanted to require kids to do one presentation on Book Creator, one on Explain Everything, one on Keynote and to do a podcast,” he said. “Once we got through three-quarters of the year and they learned all the different ways of presenting, then I said, ‘Here’s the set of learning standards, you need to demonstrate to me about mirrors and lenses. Now you can choose how you want to create your product.’ ” The end result is typically narrative and creative, he said, and students are often eager to critique each other’s work. 

This year, students also spent a term diving into their passions one day a week in a so-called Genius Hour, based on Google’s famous “20 percent time,” which gives employees time to pursue projects they’re passionate about. Many students began blogs, some of which racked up hundreds of pageviews from around the world — but there were also some surprises. “One student ended up writing a Java program to analyze sound waves,” Welty said. For his final project, the student recorded himself running the program while he played instruments such as a guitar, and held up a drinking glass to show resonance. “That’s something that just completely blew me away. Here’s somebody who is into computers and programming and was able to merge that with physics.” 

For next year, Welty is already working on tweaking his teaching approach, and will include a whole semester of Genius Hour time — a student request. “They say you get to know your students better when you flip your classroom,” he said. “It’s definitely true. I feel I have deeper relationships with students.”

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