Tablets in High School: A Real World Story

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 4/11/2012 | 16 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
The world current high school students will live and work in is significantly different than the worlds their parents and grandparents knew as students.

Just as earlier generations learned to use the tools that defined their professional worlds, today's students should develop skills with current tools while they're developing their critical learning skills and basic body of knowledge.

That's the thinking that principal Richard Jean used when he decided that every student at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. would have a tablet device -- specifically, an iPad -- as part of their required school supplies.

Joe Morano is the school's director of technology. He told me in an interview that that there was a lot of work that had to happen before the tablet program could begin:

    Everything was outdated and slow, from network to infrastructure. We were perhaps 15 years behind the times. The principal wanted to improve all the technology.

    We went to new laptops and desktops, servers are all new, we installed new layer 2-3 managed switches, fiber connections between switches, we went to a 100 Meg link into the school, and we added WiFi. All this was in preparation for the iPad program.

Jean says that the WiFi went hand-in-hand with the tablet plan to make an effective program:

    To have a laptop without WiFi, you basically have a typewriter. The key to knowledge is that it's instant: If a student has to go home to look it up, an opportunity is lost. If they can look it up immediately, they can use it.

Jean and Morano tell me about three major components of the program: the software used with the tablets (and other computing devices), the classroom management aspect, and the wireless network that ties the campus together. Moreno says that a common software suite allows students to work in different locations, collaborate, and turn in work:

    Every student has a Google Apps for Education account so they can send themselves files, collaborate with others, or send teachers files through the account. EdLine is another piece of software we use for students and teachers to communicate back and forth as well. The student and teacher are never at a place where they can't exchange files back and forth between one another.

    Evernote and Notability are two apps that we use for students to store and move information. Now, with the iCloud, if helps tremendously, as well. This really helps the teachers, so that every lesson is saved.

Classroom management is high on Jean's list of advantages:

    The traditional way of displaying things was with a projector or smartboard: The teacher had to be up front to control that. With the iPad and Apple TV, they can wander everywhere around the classroom, and teach from the back of the room so they can see the students' iPads and manage the classroom appropriately.

    The student's iPad can also be used to drive the displays -- that's switchable by the teacher. The teacher owns the lesson plan and the data that feeds the lesson.

On campus, everything is tied together through a WiFi mesh-architecture network from Firetide. Both Jean and Moreno emphasize the importance of choosing an integrator who understands the unique challenges of a school campus.

Jean says, "We interviewed a lot of wireless integrators to make sure that we would get the best products and system. The load constantly changes around the campus, and that's unusual." Moreno points to a combination of responsiveness and economy in their wireless architecture:

    The integrators with FireTide have been fantastic. Any time we've needed to make adjustments, they've been there. FireTide could provide us with access points that would support 128 users in a 2-radio access points. That made the number of access points required go way down.

    We needed the client support and the support in moving from one classroom to the next -- the iPads are handed off from one access point to the next, and people aren't dropped as they move from one AP to another, or from one classroom to another.

Ultimately, though, any education change will be judged on results. When asked about results, Jean is unapologetic:

    There's no data now. It's my opinion. I used to think it was too early but you're not going to see the impact in test results. We didn't ask a textbook or a pencil to improve test results.

    It helps with organization, and helps them become prepared for college and adult life. Great students are very organized, and this helps struggling students become more organized, which lets them reduce the struggle. Now, they can record lectures, and if they don't absorb the lesson they can go home and listen to it again.

    It's like the way that the computer has made us more productive at work, but it's tough to say that it's made us better workers.

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CurtisFranklin   Tablets in High School: A Real World Story   4/13/2012 12:12:00 PM
Re: School issued i-PAD vs BYOD & Private vs Public
@DBK, you're absolutely right, and I hadn't really considered that: Adding 20 - 30 electrical outlets in each classroom becomes hugely expensive, and my head starts to hurt when I think about the electrical infrastructure that would be required in most lunchrooms (where up to 400 students may be gathered at a time). Tablets aren't the perfect universal platform, but they do certain jobs rather well. I think it's good to see educators willing to adopt new technology in a creative way.
DBK   Tablets in High School: A Real World Story   4/12/2012 6:38:41 PM
Re: School issued i-PAD vs BYOD & Private vs Public
David - One key point that I hear for going toward tables or cloud based devices like google chrome is battery life.  If a students BYOD is a PC and the battery life is at best 4 hours how do they provide outlets to every student.  That is a whole new one to one campaign, one outlet for one student.  That is no easy task.
CurtisFranklin   Tablets in High School: A Real World Story   4/12/2012 3:37:04 PM
Re: School issued i-PAD vs BYOD & Private vs Public
@David, I'll take a contrarian view: There are several solid reasons that a tablet is a better platform than a laptop for high-school students. (Note: Some of these are from my interview for this article, but I just didn't have room to put everything in the text.)

First, an iPad in an Otterbox case (or something similar) is far more rugged than any realistically-priced laptop. It's also much lighter than almost all laptops -- something that's a serious consideration for younger and smaller students.

Next, the "instant on" aspect of a tablet (and it's one-hand text entry possibilities while standing) are critical if it's being used as an electronic dayplanner. The text entry isn't long, in these cases, but it needs to happen without disrupting traffic flow through a crowded hall.

Finally, note-taking in class is not seen as a huge purpose for the tablets. It's assumed that students will record lectures using their tablets and play them back later, and a growing number of teachers are assigning "pre-homework": Work for Tuesday's class is assigned for Monday night. Students do research and writing using a laptop or desktop computer at home (or, if needed, in a school computer lab), store the information in the cloud, and retrieve it with their tablets for discussion in class.

The vision really is for a radical change in the way that classrooms are managed. For the new way of doing things, a tablet is a great tool.
CurtisFranklin   Tablets in High School: A Real World Story   4/12/2012 3:30:48 PM
Re: School issued i-PAD vs BYOD & Private vs Public
@DBK, I agree that there are a bunch of ecosystem reasons for schools to choose the iPad over any of the currently-available Android tablets. It's possible that coming years will see a realistic rival to the iPad for educational deployment, but I think that time is at least 3 years away -- an almost-literal lifetime if you're a parent with a child who's a freshman in high school right now.

I've spoken with book publishers and they point to several reason that the iPad is the preferred platform right now: Market size, depth of e-book development systems, and iPad owner's willingness to pay for books. The last one surprised me, but publishers say that Android owners, as a group, tend to want free apps and content to a much greater extent than iPad owners. That's a non-trivial consideration if you're in the business of selling books and apps.
David Wagner   Tablets in High School: A Real World Story   4/12/2012 2:39:23 PM
Re: School issued i-PAD vs BYOD & Private vs Public
Yet another reason my child will be going to public school. Or at the very least, I'm finding an Android-friendly private school.

Frankly, i'm tired of schools jumping on the tablet bandwagon when the one and only difference between a tablet and laptop is the lack of easy input. School should be the last place we worry about style. And the best combnation of device to consume and produce information is still the lap top.
DBK   Tablets in High School: A Real World Story   4/12/2012 10:58:27 AM
School issued i-PAD vs BYOD & Private vs Public

Curtis from what I have seen so far the i-PAD is the table of choice for schools migrating to e-books.  It makes sense based on size, support and clearly operating in the cloud is a real need.  Apple U and i-cloud offer some nice tools to integrate and google has significant efforts going in this same direct, as support in your interview.  In my limited journey down this path I have heard some of the similar arguments that we here about in the enterprise, how to support BYOD.  This is also relevant to the e-book vendors who need to be platform agnostic.  It is also much easier for private schools to lead the way because they have the funding and are in a position to make decisions with less public scrutiny.  I think the public schools will have a much more difficult time making this transition, but they will need to make it.

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