Tablet use in California and Ontario high schools – Field observations by Experientia collaborator

Francesca Salvadori (Italian blog) is an Italian high school teacher who runs a 1:1 iPad pilot program in her school, and collaborates with Experientia on the topic of digital publishing. A few weeks ago she visited five schools in California and Ontario. Putting People First provides an English translation of the first part of her Italian report:

How far along is the introduction of new technologies in American schools? How are tablets used in the classrooms of Silicon Valley and how easy was it for teachers to adapt to the use of these tools in their daily activities? Do tablets actually help students to learn better, or learn more?

A trip to California and Ontario became an opportunity to come to an initial understanding of how technology is being used in schools on the other side of the Atlantic.

The scope of the research

I did what was possible during a single trip and visited five schools in seven days (two of which I was down with the flu!). Notwithstanding the limited number of schools visited, the technical and educational findings are quite clear, and at least partly, generalizable beyond the schools observed.

The five schools are of course not representative of the “average” American school: they are private institutions located in an area where the use of technologies is probably more advanced than anywhere else. Moreover, the selection was not systematic: knowing that I was going to visit the Bay Area, I approached institutions that had published some information online on their 1:1 iPad programs, so it is entirely possible that there are other deployments in the area that I am not aware of and that may have implemented different ways of working.

However, the analogies between the current practices at the five schools were striking. There is clearly an emerging trend that is driven by a careful methodological preparation and a precise assessment of the objectives these schools set out to reach.

With such a clear trend, I think it will not take much for these practices to spread like wildfire.

Tablet use in Bay Area schools

The Saint Ignatius Preparatory High School of San Francisco was the first school I visited, thanks to the great support I received from its Educational Technologist, Eric Castro.

It is a private Jesuit school with 1,300 students and a 1:1 iPad program that started in 2009. It is in fact one of the largest iPad deployments in the Bay Area.

Eric is a real expert, with deep technological knowledge but also with a healthy critical approach that comes from his background in social sciences. Those interested in technologies in education should definitely explore his Restless Pedagogue blog.

I asked Eric how widespread tablet use is in Bay Area schools at the moment. The answer (confirmed the next day by Albert Boyle, Director of Technology of the San Francisco University High School) is that only 12 schools have 1:1 iPad deployments at the moment. They are all private, with yearly tuitions between 17,000 and 35,000 USD.

The State of California is financially nearly bankrupt and has great difficulties to guarantee the regular functioning of its public schools. I was told that it is therefore impossible for them to finance tablet based learning programs. Less populated States such as Maine are in a different situation.

But is money really the decisive factor? I thought of some of the tablet programs in Italian schools such as the Lussano Lyceum of Bergamo or the Majorana school in Brindisi, which are also public schools without huge funding. Yet they found a way to embark on tablet initiatives which are now systemic and involve nearly their entire student bodies.

How to manage the digital transition? The role of teacher training and Educational Technologists

One of the key goals of my trip was to understand the ways in which the transition to tablet based learning practices is actually managed. What training do the teachers get once the leadership of the school has decided to introduce iPads?

There are analogies with what is happening in Italy, but also deep differences.

All the people I spoke with told me that teachers obtained their iPads some considerable time before they were introduced in the classrooms, and could decide freely if and how they wanted to use them in their classes. There was no pressure how quickly they have to be introduced or on the way they ought to be used. In short, the approach was one of a gentle ‘invite’ to change.

Vince Delisi, Director of Technology and Innovation at the Holy Trinity School of Richmond Hill, Ontario, told me a story about one school that he knew where teachers who didn’t want to make the technological leap, were offered a golden handshake, with the suggestion that they might have to find themselves a new professional challenge in life. But this was clearly the exception to the rule.

All the schools I visited preferred a “soft” transition, taking into account the fundamental impact of this change and the importance of adapting the didactic practices of the school to the capabilities and styles of each of their teachers.

I didn’t find any evidence of substantial training support from the State or Federal Government. To be honest, Based on what I heard about the inclusive political initiatives spearheaded by Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education of the Obama administration, I was actually expecting a more widespread diffusion of technologies in California, also in its public schools – and the absence of such might also be the reason for the lack of widespread training support. Thus, the deep divides that characterize the American school system, exemplified by the profound hiatus between public and private schools, create a situation where those who are more informed and have more financial resources can de facto act in full autonomy.

This does not mean that teachers had no training.

All the schools that I visited, from Saint Ignatius with its 1,300 students to the Drew School which has “only” 350, have staff members whose role it is to support and help the teachers in this transition. A much more structural and long-term approach therefore, than the brief training sessions that textbook publishers tend to organize in schools when they want to sell their multimedia products (as is often the case in Italy), or than the afternoon sessions that schools organize for their teachers just to be able to say that they too train their teachers.

The support staff I met are real specialists in technology applied to education. They work full time in their schools and have a double role: they support teachers in achieving their educational objectives with these new digital tools, while also keeping them continuously informed on whatever becomes available in this rapidly developing market. The training is both serious and long lasting. It is lifelong learning in the field, based on research and constant updates, which allows teachers to make a smarter use of the technologies available to them.

Hail Mary! The difference is all in the mindset

But how did teachers react when they were asked by the management of their schools to change their ways of working and to question their established teaching practices?

All educational technologists – Eric, Albert, Tom, Kate and Vince – told me that in the end all teachers have shown interest, goodwill, and often enthusiasm to the idea of using tablets as part of their teaching. Yes, there were the occasional refusal, but in absolute numbers these were isolated cases.

Moreover, this openness to change is not affected by one’s age or the number of years one has been teaching: the best example was Mary McCarty, a powerhouse under a helmet of white hair, who has enthusiastically embraced the tablet in her late career.

With great ease she moves through the classroom with her iPad, demonstrating me the use of, an innovative site that integrates key Latin texts with an interlinear word list, that students are constantly referring to in their translation exercises.

Mary is the evidence in person of people’s capacity to adapt. She demonstrates that the desire to be effective in a transforming world is not based on age. It is not true, I think, that the young are more able and quick to adapt to the new and to welcome the challenges that technologies have to offer. It is, I think, all based on one’s mindset and adaptability. All that’s needed is a desire to continue learning, and the willingness to make mistakes and to take on the challenge to find new ways to communicate with students. A pragmatic and non ideological approach is also essential – which might be a challenge for Italian schools where teachers often have strong ideologically biased views on new technologies.

Understanding the difficulties

But what about the varied and sometimes unpredictable reactions of teachers? The most interesting insight on this came from Kate Miller, Instructional Technology Specialist at the Menlo School (Atherton, CA).

Menlo is the school of the 1%. Kate does the same work as Eric [Castro], but in an even more privileged environment.

We are at a stone’s throw from Palo Alto and Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Menlo’s dream campus with its impressive and luminous spaces, its very advanced technologies (all devices are last generation Apple), and its highly professional teachers and staff bring it close to our – somewhat unreal – image of the “perfect school”.

Kate told me that she taught in environments that are far less exclusive. Probably because of that she has an empathy for those who are not so enamored by technology, and might even nurture resistance towards it or at least a profound detachment.

Despite her role as a technology “specialist,” Kate understands those who do not want to spend hours playing games on their iPads or try out the latest apps, but prefer to do something else (like reading a printed book). The challenge for those who support the digital transition, she thinks, is to understand the difficulties of those who are not so digitally adapt and have different mental models than those who design these devices and apps.

Teachers may never become real “technology experts,” but it is crucial that someone competent and sensitive is there to help them, someone who understands what is needed to make their professionalism more powerful. From that point of view, an intelligent psychological approach, such as Kate’s, is not the only determining factor. Equally important are solid technical expertise and the willingness to quickly find solutions to the practical problems that technology often creates for teachers.

Eric Spross, Director of Technology at the Menlo School, is gifted with this important combination, and gladly makes his insights available to those less technologically savvy, like myself. Even though I am not even working at his school, Eric gladly showed me which tools to use to replace Apple TV when the class uses different operating systems. In the end, I was able to return to Italy with a clear idea of what to do and what to buy. If I had to find and evaluate all the relevant technical info by myself, I would have spent much more time and energy.

After all, the rules of the game are that the technology has to be made available to us, and not the other way around…

How the use of tablets is changing teaching and learning

One of my main interests was to understand how teaching itself is changing with the use of the tablet. I had developed my own thoughts, based on my personal experiences using tablets in my classroom. Observing the work of colleagues who are working in a school and educational context that is so different from our own, brought the question even more to the fore.

Using a tablet in the classroom means first of all saying goodbye to frontal teaching, while providing space and guidance to students’ independent research, writing or other creative activities. In this new world, the classroom changes from a conference room to a practice room, which implies that pedagogical practices need to be inverted. The students I saw working away in their classrooms, had absorbed the lecture contents at home – through readings, videos, etc. – which at school were then elaborated upon by the teacher. The teachers’ role of the latter has changed fundamentally: they are mainly providing stimulation and guidance to the research and exercises of the students (the so-called “inverted classroom”).

But if students become researchers, the main teaching objective is to bring them to ask the right questions and to stimulate their critical thought. The classes that I was sitting in on struck me foremost because of their dialectic approach: the focus was never on the facts – interesting to notice how that transforms History teaching – but on the underlying questions. Students are asked to reflect upon these, but also to argue their proper point of view. This dialectic approach is of course not really new in the Anglo-Saxon educational context, but the use of technologies pushes it even more: the real issue is no longer finding the facts but selecting, understanding and interpreting them.

The end of the digital whiteboard

I didn’t see any interactive whiteboards. Anywhere. I asked why and the answer was always the same: “not useful and way too expensive.”

All classrooms are equipped with a projector that is connected wirelessly to the tablet of the teachers or the students – depending on the type of work – by means of a video streamer (e.g. an Apple TV) that projects its screen image onto a scroll-down screen, a whiteboard or a white wall.

No maintenance, no burnt-out bulbs, no walls that cannot be used for anything else. If you use tablets, you have no longer any need for interactive whiteboards. No need to throw them away, but we need to find ways to make them work with the new touch devices (a solution could lie in connecting them directly with a video streaming device, which seems to be possible, or through an Airplay mirroring app such as Reflector). And we should stop buying new ones.

The contents: an open challenge for schoolbook publishers

From Eric Castro to Shane Carter (History Teacher at the Drew School) to Stefanie Portman (History Instructor at the Menlo School) to Ohad Paran (English Teacher at the Menlo School): all have declared war on textbooks.

While it is certainly true that textbooks never had the central role in the American educational system that they have in our own, it is also true that I heard a unanimous choir of complaints on how publishing houses are reacting to the challenge of digitalization.

Teachers and school administrators underlined the inadequate offering of the publishing houses and their nearly hysterical obsession with the copyright of their products – which has made it nearly impossible in the USA to commercialize digital textbooks, without substantial limitations in their use. What’s more, they also point out that publishers simply do not understand the “open” nature of the web.

My observations herald a future that looks quite worrisome for publishers: teachers of various stripes and with various backgrounds, who only share the use of the tablet in their classrooms, have jointly decided to no longer use textbooks in their teaching practice. Instead they have opted for materials that they themselves have selected, assembled and shared, taking advantage of the immense archive of the web, including Open Educational Resources (OER) and whatever else can be useful in classroom activities.

The unsurmountable problem of textbooks lies in their lack of adaptability to a teaching practice that has become increasingly creative and personalized, thanks to digital tools. Hybrid solutions, which seek to salvage the old by packaging it as something new, have therefore little potential of success.

So should we sing the funeral mass for the publishing houses? I don’t think so. The “big three” in the USA – Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw Hill – are preparing for the future by buying up or partnering with start-ups that are able to create contents of a new generation, and by building platforms that combine highly modularized copyrighted contents with OER materials.

The various directions will show their strengths and weaknesses very soon. The only certainty now is that the current wait-and-see approach of the publishing housesand the underlying unwillingness to deeply reconsider the role of their services and offerings, will only bring about a situation where teachers create their own books even more rapidly, exactly like they want them.

But does tablet use improve student performance?

No. Or at least, we don’t know yet.

Some iPad programs, like those at the Menlo School or the San Francisco University High School, are very new (initiated only this year), while others, e.g. those at Saint Ignatius or at the Holy Trinity School, are now in their second or third year.

Everyone told me that tablets are but a tool that no one should expect miracles of. Paul Molinelli (Director of Professional Development at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory School) said that the primary goal for the staff of Saint Ignatius, is not to raise the academic scores but to make the classes more “engaging”, closer to the language and the communication style of the students. With great honesty, Paul mentioned that the digital transition may even have created some setbacks: e.g. one class did less well than normal because students needed time to adapt to the new educational requirements and to the evaluation methods which had partly changed.

Also Vince Delisi insisted on the need for a bit of patience in evaluating the results. He underlined that it is still too early to evaluate the academic performance of tablets. We move ahead and wait, he said, because the praxis needs to be perfected and consolidated before we can see tangible results: the most encouraging fact at the moment is the enthusiasm of the students and their families.

The resources of the private school

We discussed earlier how the role of the Educational Technologists is fundamental. Their involvement is not something that came about by coincidence; there is a deeply rooted awareness in these schools of the digital revolution currently taking place, and of the importance to seriously commit to strong support to all protagonists in the educational process in this phase of digital transition. These schools understand that such a radical paradigm shift cannot be left to chance, but requires the involvement and the support of experts who know what they are talking about.

Of course, the extraordinary organization and the amount of resources that a private school system can avail itself of, cannot but impress an Italian teacher. Perhaps we need to reflect on the consequences of our (Italian) obsession with equality, that has created an educational system that will never have schools like Saint Ignatius and Menlo.

Notwithstanding the empty pre-election statements here in Italy or the feel-good declarations to make our public servants happy, we have to admit that no one really invests in our schools. Not the state. Not the private sector. The result is an old and somewhat marginal educational system, with occasional points of excellence, that are often due to the heroic efforts of individual teachers or headmasters.

Let’s push for leaders who are seriously committed to investing in our future.

I want to thank all those who have welcomed me through their writing, or by providing me with guidance, picking me up at train or metro stations, guiding me around, or being available for conversations or interviews during this very interesting journey. In particular I want to thank Eric Castro, Paul Molinelli, Tom Wadbrooke, Juna McDaid, Shane Carter, Kate Garret, Albert Boyle, Kate Miller, Eric Spross, Ohad Paran, Stefanie Portman, Vince Delisi, and John Edgecombe for their extraordinary availability.

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