Like their peers at high schools across the nation, students at Pikes Peak Prep charter school in Colorado Springs are learning the basics of biology this fall with a good old-fashioned frog dissection.
But there are no scalpels or pungent aroma of formaldehyde accompanying the lessons here. Instead, Pikes Peak students are doing something new and different—”virtually” dissecting electronic amphibians on the 50 new iPads the school obtained this year.
It’s part of an experiment to see whether the new tablet device can replace textbooks, libraries, and even science labs—and perhaps increase student achievement while relieving pressure on school budgets.
Pikes Peak Prep, which has neither a library nor a science lab, might be the perfect test case.
“The decision we made was based on: Do we build a library and a science lab, then buy books and a bookshelf and hire a librarian? You can do the math,” said Kevin Teasley, president of the GEO Foundation, an Indianapolis-based charter school management group that runs Pikes Peak Prep. “Or do we look at some more economical approach in which we can achieve essentially the same outcome at a reduced cost to the taxpayer?
“It’s good stewardship,” Teasley said.
Pilot Programs Planned
Apple introduced its tablet last spring to big hype and even bigger sales, and the device is already making a splash in education. Colleges such as Abilene Christian University in Texas and Oklahoma State University have launched pilot programs studying how the device might best be used in classrooms. Other institutions—such as George Fox University in Oregon—are giving them away to every incoming freshman who wants one.
The impact has been narrower at the K-12 level, but that’s changing. Education officials in Virginia announced plans in late September to launch a 12-week pilot program in several schools to test the device’s effectiveness in teaching U.S. history and social studies to 7th- and 9th-graders.
Such efforts are cheered by Bill Wiecking, an instructor at the K-12 Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Kamuela. He has emerged as one of the most vocal advocates for using the iPad in classrooms, touting apps such as Star Walk, which lets astronomy students hold the device to the skies and see the stars mapped out.
“It isn’t just good because it’s new,” Wiecking said, noting today’s students are accustomed to the ubiquity of wireless technology. He notes iPads can play videos or audio lectures and let students enter data and interact with their lessons in ways ranging far beyond textbook readings.
“If you insist on teaching them in old ways,” Wiecking said of his students, “you’re going to handicap them.”
Wiecking says the iPad’s app-driven environment makes it more difficult for students to multitask and stray from their assignments. The single-panel layout also makes it more difficult for students to hide extracurricular web surfing from teachers.
“I have laptops and iPads. I find the iPad kids tend to be more on-task,” Wiecking said. “It tends to keep them focused.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Cedars School of Excellence near Glasgow, Scotland distributed iPads to all 105 of its students this fall. Fraser Speirs, who oversaw the project, said he has been amazed at how quickly the devices have become integrated into the school experience.
“The iPad has been so embedded in day-to-day business,” Speirs said. “Basically to be without the iPad breaks school for you.”
Students have shown great enthusiasm for the devices, he said, but it’s too early to tell whether they’ll help improve achievement.
“It’s going to take us a while to really determine that,” Speirs said. “We believe strongly already that children are engaged for longer on the tasks they set. My personal opinion is that can never hurt.”
Pikes Peak Principal Patricia Arnold says the biggest early result of using iPads in her school has been a noticeable uptick in student enthusiasm.
“It will never replace a teacher. Kids need that direct instruction, that interaction with adults guiding them,” she said. “But I will say for high school kids—some know what they want to do, go on to college, but the greater number at that age lose their motivation. The iPad for our kids has been a motivator, and that’s huge. It’s been a way to get them to learn more.”
From an administrative standpoint, she said, expense is a big consideration. iPad models start at $500 apiece. That a big expense, but putting additional education apps to run on the devices is relatively cheap, sge says, and the school can save money if it reduces the ongoing expenses of textbook replacement.
“That’s an unknown,” Arnold said of the iPad’s replacement cycle. “We’re hoping it will at least be a five-year run.”
‘Trying to Change the Future’
Teasley is optimistic. “When you put it in the shadow of what happened in Los Angeles, where they spent $500 million to build a school for a select number of students, this is a cost-effective way to drive down the cost of delivering education,” he said.
Pikes Peak Prep has an enrollment of 300 mostly at-risk students, Arnold said. She hopes the device can be a game-changer in their progress.
“We’re trying to change the future for these kids,” she said, “and the iPad is one more tool helping them be successful.”
Joel Mathis ([email protected]) writes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.