Originally published November 16, 2013 at 08:44p.m., updated November 17, 2013 at 07:57a.m.
COLLEGE PLACE — The most striking thing about Tyler Anderson’s eighth-period U.S. government class at Walla Walla Valley Academy on a recent day wasn’t the row of metallic iPads students propped up on their desks.
What was striking was how normal it seemed to the students using them.
Within minutes of sitting down, the students, clad in maroon school uniforms, had already begun an assignment tracking down information on the Internet and filling in Google Forms quizzes.
Later, students read about the First Amendment. There’s no traditional textbook in sight, they’re using an iBook — an e-book that incorporates video and audio.
By the end of the class, students are giving presentations in pairs on Supreme Court cases. Presentations they had researched and built on just their iPads during class — no treks to a computer lab or homework required.
In the two months since WWVA, a Seventh-day Adventist high school, began issuing iPads to all of its 172 students, the devices have become more common in Anderson’s class than a pencil and paper.
A national trend
WWVA isn’t the first school in the Walla Walla Valley to use iPads in the classroom. Schools across the nation have been experimenting with the devices since Apple first launched the iPad in 2010. In the span of three years, Apple has sold millions of the tablets to educators and consumers.
The tech giant said during a quarterly earnings conference in late October that it had made more than $1 billion in educational sales.
But WWVA is on the forefront of a new model of use for the devices, as relatively few schools have begun issuing each student their own iPad to use at home and at school.
The largest and most problem-plagued rollout of a similar program has been at the Los Angeles Unified School District, which began issuing students at 47 different schools iPads, according to the Los Angeles Times.
LAUSD is operating on a different scale and in a different area, however. The second-largest school district in the country, LAUSD serves more than 1.5 million students and its program, which was funded by a capital projects bond, could eventually cost as much as $1 billion.
WWVA is going through some growing pains as well with the tablets, which cost more than $400 apiece with the military-grade cases the school bought to protect its investment.
A software upgrade in October was originally supposed to happen over a weekend, but instead stretched out over almost a week. And some software glitches have given students and teachers headaches.
But in all, the rollout has been surprisingly smooth, WWVA Principal Brian Harris said.
“I almost expected a few more issues,” Harris said.
At LAUSD numerous iPads have been lost or stolen, students have found ways around security protocols designed to limit their Internet access, and the massive number of Internet-capable devices has crashed Wi-Fi networks across the district.
All of which has prompted criticism of the program and prompted the district to re-evaluate its plans.
At WWVA, on the other hand, only one device has been lost and reported stolen during the 2½ months since school began, and although some students were able to find ways around content filtering software, Harris said student hacking hasn’t been a widespread issue.
Curriculum in flux
Teachers at WWVA have implemented iPads into their classes to varying degrees. Anderson’s class is ahead of the pack, using their iPads for just about everything, whereas most teachers are still using traditional textbooks and giving quizzes on paper.
The most important feature of the iPad though, is its ability to connect to the Internet, Anderson said.
“I guess that’s the bottom line,” Anderson said. “They’re connected to information.”
Just finding information online can be a learning experience, Anderson said. But having his students give a presentation on what they learned was icing on the cake.
“The presentation is the neat part of it,” Anderson said, “but the part that’s actually helping them learn is doing the research and being able to find the information.”
Dan Calzaretta, a teacher at Pioneer Middle School in the Walla Walla School District, received 30 iPads for classroom use as part of a grant to make documentaries in the fall of 2012.
Since then, iPads have replaced textbooks for his classes, Calzaretta said. He teaches the Explorers program at Pioneer, an English and social studies class for gifted student, but he said students don’t have to be gifted to use the iPad effectively.
“It’s not a function of the classroom, it’s a function of the teacher,” Calzaretta said. “If you give the iPad to a classroom with a very top-down teacher, you might as well give them a yellow notepad and a pencil.
“In order to be used properly, it’s probably going to necessitate a paradigm shift in how we teach,” he said.
Chad Jerald, a senior at WWVA a student in Anderson’s class, said using tablets in class had its drawbacks, such as longer writing assignments using a virtual keyboard, but he liked the program overall.
“We can apply more of what we learn,” Jerald said. “We’re actually working with what we’re learning.”
One thing WWVA didn’t anticipate when it handed out iPads was the ability it gave students to collaborate.
The tablet’s messaging capabilities allow students to communicate when at home and during their study periods, and Google Docs, an online office suite similar to Microsoft Office, allows students to collaborate on documents simultaneously.
“It’s amazing what they can do on the iPads,” Harris said.
Little is certain in the technology world. The pace of innovation means that what was once cutting-edge technology can be made obsolete a matter of months.
Nowhere does this apply more than the market for tablets, which Apple essentially created with the launch of the original iPad in 2010.
Since then, Apple has sold about 170 million iPads, but just how they’ll fit into the educational marketplace isn’t certain yet.
There aren’t as many options for e-textbooks available yet as there are traditional ones, and how schools or students should pay for e-textbooks isn’t settled either.
Anderson likes the iBook, which is immensely more rich than a traditional textbook, but the book his class is using takes up 4 gigabytes of storage — a quarter of the 16-gigabyte hard drive.
And students who want to use iBooks must each have their own Apple iTunes accounts, a stumbling block for schools that may want more control over their students’ use of their iPads.
At roughly $15 for an iBook, they’re also much cheaper than a traditional textbook, which can cost hundreds of dollars each. But iBooks can’t be reused by other students, and can’t be shared either.
“We’re not sure if we’re going to be saving money (by switching to e-books),” Harris said. “Textbook manufacturers are behind the curve. They’re still trying to figure out how to make money too.”
Harris said the school is considering several options for switching to e-textbooks en masse, including eliminating the school’s textbook fee and allowing students to pay for their own books.
How long the model of iPad WWVA bought, the iPad 2, will be supported is uncertain as well. Released in early 2011, the iPad 2 is still being supported, but it’s already three generations behind the new iPad Air, which was released in October.
WWVA is hoping it can make the iPad 2 last for four more years before being replaced, Information Services Director Rudy Scott said.
Aside from buying the tablets, the school has also had to invest in its Internet infrastructure to support the new devices.
WWVA got a direct fiber-optic broadband line rated for 100 megabytes per second of data from Walla Walla University over the summer, and over the past two years has been incrementally upgrading its Wi-Fi network to handle increased demand.
With about 20 wireless access points compared to the eight the school had before, the network has been able to handle the extra demand for the most part.
“But when all of the students are using it (the Internet) at once, it still gets consumed,” Scott said. “Students know how to use bandwidth.”
In all, upgrades to the school’s network cost about $2,500-$3,000, Scott estimated.
“It was insignificant to the cost of the iPads,” he said.
Now other districts are looking at including more technology in the classroom as well, including Walla Walla Public Schools, which serves about 6,500 students.
District Director of Technology Forrest Baker said the district has distributed tablets to some teachers and specialized classes, but doesn’t yet have a plan to do something similar to WWVA.
“As we look forward to our 2014-17 technology plan, we want to have an idea of how we’re going to better integrate technology,” Baker said. “What we don’t want to do is buy a bunch of technology and not have a curriculum-based plan on how to use it.”