LI schools step up use of tablet technology

John F Kennedy Middle School assistant principal Scott

John F Kennedy Middle School assistant principal Scott Zanville helping Patrick Imbomoni, 12, and going to the 8th grade, during a training program for the new ChromeBook at the Administration building in Bethpage. (Aug. 8, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

For a growing number of Long Island school districts, the verdict on technology is in: More, please.

Several years after schools tiptoed into the high-tech marketplace, a number of districts this year are moving beyond small pilot programs, with some seeing tablets as vital for individualized learning and others for meeting newly adopted education standards.

It is an era that Tom Rogers, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, dubs the "third generation -- where the technology is doing something that could never have been contemplated before."


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To use that technology to fuller advantage, some districts are making tablets more accessible than ever before. Mineola, for one example, started with 100 iPads in 2010, but this fall is providing one for each of its 1,200 students in third through eighth grades.

Other administrators, citing tight budgets and state-imposed tax caps, are taking more measured approaches, asking for more research and eyeing alternatives, such as products from Google and Microsoft.

Michael Nagler, superintendent of Mineola schools, is among the converted.

"How can we expect children of this generation not to use technology in their lives?" Nagler asked. "As a school, we need to deal with that."

This fall, some Island schools are offering or expanding one-to-one initiatives -- each student will have a tablet that they are allowed to take home.

Plainedge, which has used iPads for some academically challenged students, will roll out 750 more -- mostly for fifth- and sixth-graders who can take them home. And Rockville Centre, which has used iPads only in classrooms, this year has 500 tablets that sixth- and seventh-graders can take home. This month, for the first time, each of Roslyn High School's 1,100 students will have them, too.

Administrators said they are able to fund tablets through grants or by diverting funds from other technological uses, such as desktop computer labs. School officials peg iPads, with cases and software, at about $500 each. Google Chromebooks, they said, are about $250 apiece.

"Districts are battling with budgets right now, and technology is ever-changing," said Elisa Barilla, model schools coordinator for Nassau BOCES. "So, for a district to invest in technology and to integrate it into the curriculum, it's a bold step for today."

Bethpage has turned to the Google Chromebook, a cloud-based laptop. The district will have 700 of those for middle schoolers to take home, after piloting 150 in classrooms in the 2012-13 school year. Southold will introduce 240 of them to all students in fifth through ninth grades, for take-home use.

Many schools, regardless of resources, hail the heavy-user schools as models and pioneers. Mineola's Nagler described the past year as a game-changer -- the first in which an entire school in his district had iPads for class and home use.

"We have 600 kids, we're like this giant case study of 'Can we, through this device, increase achievement?' " he said. "And does it make it easier for us to individualize for kids to move achievement? Nobody's done that."

The iPads in particular come with a large supply of apps and can adapt easily to an individualized learning approach that educators say is gaining traction.

A centerpiece of that plan is software called eSpark. The program, relying on students' test data, assigns tasks based on skill deficiencies. For instance, one Mineola student whose work had shown she had difficulty defining authors' themes used eSpark to draw and label a scene she had imagined, in order to portray the concept behind poet Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

David Vinca, the founder of eSpark, called the interface a marked improvement from earlier technologies, such as the laptop.

The marketplace for the software is maturing as tablet sales rise, he said. Eleven Long Island school districts will use eSpark this fall, his company said, up from six last year.

Educators noted that iPad's more than 75,000 educational applications and interactive features allow students to produce videos, research databases and build digital presentations with voice-overs.

Tablets are key to meeting other changes, including curricula that meet more rigorous Common Core academic standards and shifts to computer-based testing, educators said.

"A lot of it has to do with close reading, and a movement toward nonfiction, and there are just tremendous resources out there for both of those on the Internet and the web," Bethpage superintendent Terrence Clark said.

Educators said the emphasis on individualized learning reflects a shift in views of the teacher -- from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side."

"In a perfect world, education would be tailored to each child's learning level," rather than a "19th-century factory model where kids are essentially batch-processed," said Margaret Crocco, a former dean of the University of Iowa's College of Education.

In one Mineola Middle School class, teachers email students tasks of varying length and difficulty. The customized approach is a tactful one in classes of mixed abilities, teacher Leslie Van Bell said. "Not everyone's aware that it's at a lower level or a higher one. Everybody gets a different email."

The technology also has broken traditional classroom barriers, including being able to reach teachers after school hours.

Teachers and students in some districts communicate through Edmodo, a school-run social media page that resembles Facebook.

Van Bell said she interacts with students now "all the time," although she and other teachers emphasized that they are not obligated to respond round-the-clock.

"If a kid emails me and is having trouble, I can't ignore it. I can't wait until the next day," she said.

Some school officials hesitate because they don't know if platforms for computer-based testing -- which is expected to be required within the next few years -- will be compatible with today's devices.

"I don't want to invest in iPads and find out the technology doesn't support the software," said Island Trees superintendent Charles Murphy.

Shawna BĂș Shell, who teaches at Columbia University's Teachers College and at Rowan University in New Jersey, said a "digital divide" is a natural result of varying approaches, as is educators' wariness of rapid high-tech change.

"We're always going to be a step behind on technology," she said.

Clark said his district experimented with a variety of devices over two years, and Chromebooks eventually won the day. They are half the price of iPads, he said, and fewer technicians are needed to maintain them, allowing for larger purchases.

Questions linger over the devices' effectiveness. Crocco, calling some tasks "drill and kill" software, said: "If all it does is have a child work on a worksheet, why do we need software for that?"

That's par for the course in education, said Rogers of Nassau BOCES.

"Some are early adopters and some are willing to experiment," he said, "and others are waiting to see the results of those experiments before they make those heavy investments."

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