Last February, the Sweetwater Union High School District moved forward with a controversial initiative to buy 6300 iPads for its seventh-graders. The iPads cost $4.3 million. Several months later, the district purchased iPad covers, spending $27,000, and in July, learning-management software, costing $1.1 million over six years. The district faces a $27 million deficit. As the costly experiment with new technology unfolds, many question the district’s use of funds and planning to integrate iPads into the classroom.
Sweetwater began using iPads in a pilot program last November. A select group of Hilltop Middle School students were sold the devices. A current posting on the district’s website lauds the program: “Pilot programs such as the one being implemented at Hilltop Middle School in the Foreign Language and Global Studies (FLAGS) program have proven highly successful at engaging students and in raising academic achievement.”
Despite this claim, a public records request asking whether students’ grades had improved yielded this response: “The district does not have the requested information as this is not something we are tracking.”
Money for the iPads came from several sources, including $1.8 million from Proposition O construction bond money and $1.5 million from Mello-Roos funds. Mello-Roos is a special tax assessment paid by some California communities to fund infrastructure and construction of public facilities.
Many have argued that the money raised through construction bonds should not be spent on iPads. The use of Mello-Roos funds has also been criticized, as not all Sweetwater families pay Mello-Roos taxes.
Critics of Sweetwater’s iPad program claim the devices are offered to induce students to stay in the district rather than leave for charter schools. As school budgets continue to shrink, critics question where the money for iPads will come from next year and the year after.
Nick Marinovich, chair of the Proposition O Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee, recently wrote to the district expressing the committee’s concerns about the iPad expenditure. “Issues such as long term useful life, technological changes in hardware and software, the relationship of the iPad functions juxtaposed to educational needs and how the iPad acquisition fits into the long term Information Technology Plan for the District were discussed [at a committee meeting].… [W]e repeatedly asked the District to provide a comprehensive plan on how they would continue to fund iPads over the next five years as well as how they planned to measure their success,” he wrote. “The response was that for funding they will apply for grants and look for future money. There was no apparent metrics to analyze the effectiveness of this investment.…”
Lack of planning has been a constant thread in the iPad discussion. Melanie, an English instructor who spoke on condition that only her first name be used, was part of the pilot program at Hilltop Middle School. She experienced a number of problems. She said that teachers received only two days of iPad instruction. “We had no training in how to effectively use the iPads in our own subjects,” Melanie said.
With class sizes ranging from 31 to 39 students, Melanie had trouble monitoring iPad activity. “By the time you walk over to a student, he or she will have changed the screen.”
She witnessed one instance of cyber-bullying. On his iPad, a student had Photoshopped into the front page of a newspaper a picture of another student, surrounded with rude comments and given a rude headline.
Although the district’s server blocks certain web activity, such as games and Facebook, students quickly found another server that gave them freedom to roam the web.
Melanie said that parents had complained about iPads, blaming them for a drop in their children’s grades.
Benjamin Black, a science teacher at Hilltop, is enthusiastic about the potential for iPads in the classroom. He was instrumental in establishing the pilot program and provided technical support all year. The devices are superior, Black says, to the district’s ragged, used textbooks “with a penis scrawled on every page.”
“When my students first started using the iPads,” he says, “they scored a little bit lower than they had been, but by the end of the semester they had advanced significantly.”
With professional support, Black said, teachers could create curriculum and access free textbooks online. “Each teacher can bend it for his or her discipline’s use in the classroom.”
However, Black acknowledged challenges. “This is being dropped on teachers with very little organized and effective planning…[and] this has caused much resistance and caused the program to be viewed more as a nuisance or waste rather than something truly beneficial.”
Another potential problem is safety. Steven Conner, a Sweetwater parent, worries that since the district has cut back on buses, kids with iPads walking to school will be targets for theft.
David Damico is Sweetwater’s director of education technology. He served as the executive director of Ecademy California, a virtual charter school for K-8 students.
“Teachers are creative,” Damico said in an August 4 interview. “They will become more and more innovative, developing their own content area…and the iPads will challenge the students individually. They are very interactive. They have a device for writing, streaming video, and they are not necessarily depending on a teacher in the room.”
Asked if the iPad will stay with the student through high school, Damico said, “There are still some unknowns, like how long the iPads will last or how long the batteries will last. Technology is always changing, too. The iPads won’t necessarily last for six years.”
Parents signed a contract when students received their iPads, agreeing to recharge the device at night and to pay for a damaged iPad. Although the replacement cost — $549 — was not disclosed, Damico said most parents returned the contract.
The new school year began on July 25. Seventh-graders were responsible for downloading textbooks, and librarians reported that various problems arose. One developed when students synched their iPads to home computers to download music, which wiped out the district downloads. This resulted in up to 30 iPads at a time being brought into the library to be fixed or to have the apps reloaded, sometimes taking several days.
The iPad distribution was “two steps forward and then a little dance to the side,” says Joan Hales, a teacher at Mar Vista Middle School. “I had hoped the textbooks would be interactive, but they’re not.”
Three weeks into the school year, about 10 percent of her classroom time is spent with iPads, Hales says, “but I think within a few weeks we’ll be up to 50 percent.” One of the “little bumps in the road” is that “These are 12-year-olds, and though it’s in their contract to charge the iPads every night, the first week many of the students didn’t have enough charge.”
Hales uses iPads in her special education class. For students whose “executive-function skills are challenged, the iPad is a miracle. The devices help these students to keep everything together in one place.”
Mike Dotson, another Mar Vista teacher, is optimistic about the iPad’s potential, saying that it will be useful in preparing students for standardized tests.
“In six months to a year, we’ll be bangin’ on all cylinders,” he says, “but for the time being, it’s very time-consuming. It’s difficult learning to utilize all the apps while trying to teach utilizing all the apps.”
But on August 15, many wondered whether the district had the infrastructure to bang on all cylinders. An email from a teacher making the rounds said that the iPads had crashed. “Students have no restrictions, and access to district internet is gone,” the email said, and “the applications where they submit homework and have access to textbooks are gone.” More days of instruction would be lost while the iPads were reloaded one by one. Phone calls to teachers and librarians at several campuses confirmed that the problem was widespread.
Although many school districts are embracing new technology, some private schools have a different philosophy. A 2011 article in the New York Times titled “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute” begins: “The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud.”
The Waldorf School, a chain whose local facility is located in City Heights, encourages “a media-free environment as much as possible during childhood through the ninth grade,” says Julie Joinson, director of admissions.
“Computers, if you let them, can substitute for actually learning skills. Computers will do spell checks for you, they correct your grammar, cut, paste, and regurgitate Wikipedia. Some students are even forgetting how to write in cursive — there’s something to be said for cursive writing and basic motor skills.
“By giving students computers to stop the flow of students to charter schools, what are we saying? A material gift is more important than an education?” ■