Oct 12 2006

Tablet Pcs Are Transforming How Educators Teach And How Students Learn

The goal at Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Hinsdale, Ill., is to design the educational environment of the future.

It's safe to say that when it comes to technology, Illinois’ Hinsdale Township High School District 86 stays ahead of the curve. Eight years ago, before the computer cart rolled its way into mainstream popularity, staff members at one of Hinsdale’s two high school campuses piled PCs onto a wheeled cafeteria table and maneuvered the makeshift mobile computer lab around the building.

“It was a little clumsy, but it really reflected where our faculty was coming from,” acknowledges Dr. James Polzin, assistant superintendent of the 4,300-student school district.

The educators in Hinsdale have come a long way since then. They’ve even added Tablet PCs to their technology lineup to provide teachers with more mobility.

“We knew that if we were going to help teachers integrate technology into their teaching, we couldn’t expect them to have to schedule [lessons] when a lab happened to be open,” says Tim Hohman, Hinsdale’s director of technology. “When a teachable moment comes along, the technology has to be ready and available to support it.”

Hinsdale made a giant leap toward achieving that objective when the district began replacing some desktops in its 180 classrooms. Always the technology trailblazer, the district replaced its aging PCs with nearly 350 Toshiba Tablet PCs—one for each high school teacher. This provides the teachers with mobile technology that they can use wherever and whenever they want.

During the 2003-04 academic year, Hinsdale purchased Tablet PCs for one math computer lab and all the science teachers in one building. Several other units were passed around to other teachers so they could look them over.

“As a result of the overwhelmingly positive response and the need to replace the classroom computers for the coming school year, we decided to go with Tablets for all teachers for the 2004-2005 school year,” reports Jennifer Rooker, a recently retired assistant principal at Hinsdale Central High School and now the district’s Tablet PC project coordinator. The district also purchased the devices for nine classrooms in order to create more Tablet environments.

The Hinsdale district will do research during the coming school year to decide what their next steps should be in regard to the Tablet PCs.

Enhanced Learning

The ability of Tablet PCs to process handwritten input have significantly enhanced the learning process in the classrooms where they have been deployed. When the Tablet’s screen is folded down, it can be used as an electronic pad of paper.

Students who have access to the units can write class notes on the screen, organize them and then, using the device’s wireless capabilities, post the notes for fellow students to access on the school’s Web site. When editing an essay, students can customize their work and increase learning retention by making grammar notes in red, conjugating verbs in blue and highlighting introductory sentences in yellow.

“Students can visualize and look for patterns in their essays and papers,” Rooker says. “We’re saying to them, ‘You own the text.’ They can edit everything.”

Teachers can use the devices in conjunction with wireless LCD projectors. While roaming the classroom, they can compile notes, diagrams and other data directly onto their Tablet screens, creating on-the-fly lessons that are immediately projected onto the wall for all to see, discuss and manipulate.

Students also can project their work, adding thoughts and ideas to a topic or lesson plan to facilitate class discussion and critiques. By using different colors, diagrams, handwriting, highlighting and other tools, all data can be processed and saved in a format that can easily be shared and saved for quick retrieval.

“Tablet PCs change student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships,” Rooker says. “The entire process is so dynamic: Whatever is projected comes alive.”

“The level of interaction and openness to peer critique is much different with the Tablets,” Hohman adds. “Work can be shared with the entire class, and more kids become involved when they don’t have to stand up in front of their peers. Students become more interactive with what is happening in the classroom.”

Recent federal research shows that students who diagram their own drawings and notes in a math problem are more likely to retain the material. “When they can manipulate the data, they have a better understanding of the connecting ideas,” Polzin notes.

Hinsdale’s teachers are also getting a lot of mileage from the Tablet PCs in their own work, Rooker says. Many are using the Tablets to build their courses electronically, and give tests and feedback online. The devices have also simplified grading: Instructors can accept student papers digitally, then view them on the Tablet PCs, add handwritten notes to them, and then e-mail the graded and annotated projects back to their students.

“This really appeals to the students,” Rooker says. And, without the need for binders, spiral notebooks and other traditional study materials, students can enter a virtually paperless society.

“It’s so much more efficient,” Rooker says. “You don’t lose anything, and you can do everything on the Tablet.” The district is even investigating the possibility of transitioning to online textbooks.

Expanding the Vision

The increases in efficiency, organization, information retention and student interaction that are provided by Tablet PCs has prompted Hinsdale to expand its vision of the computer curriculum. It is considering launching a program in the 2005-2006 school year that will involve parents purchasing the Tablet PCs for their children. The goal of each student having a Tablet PC is well-supported by the parents of eighth grade students, according to a district survey.

“Our vision has always been to move technology into the classroom and into the hands of students,” Rooker adds. “Parents are already buying technology to help their kids in school. We want to harness our resources to make the greatest impact on student achievement, and to coach parents to make the wisest investment.”

This vision is based on educational goals, not the desire to have the latest and greatest technology. “District 86 is not interested in designing the technology school of the future,” Polzin insists. “We are interested in designing the instruction of the future, and we believe the Tablet PC is a tool that improves instruction dramatically.”

Melissa Tamberg is a technology-focused freelance writer based in San Diego.

At a Glance

School District: Hinsdale Township High School District 86

Location: Hinsdale, Ill.

Superintendent: Dr. Roger K. Miller

Schools: Two high schools

Teachers: Approximately 340

Students: Nearly 4,300

Classrooms: 180

Plans: The district is considering launching a program in the 2005-2006 school year that will involve parents purchasing the Tablet PCs for their children.

Federal Technology Grants

Most educators can easily come up with ideas on how to use Tablet PCs in their school district, but many draw a blank when it comes to figuring out where they would get the money to buy such equipment.

Here’s a tip: This year, the U.S. Department of Education has $36 billion earmarked for states and K-12 school districts, and about $3.3 billion to support rehabilitation, research and development, statistics and assessment. Most of the funding will be given as formula grants, which are noncompetitive and awarded on a predetermined formula, or as discretionary grants, which are awarded in a competitive process.

Information about grant programs is available in the federal agency’s Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs, which can be downloaded from the agency’s Web site. Interested schools may also contact the program office that administers the grant they seek.

Before you apply for a grant, be sure your organization is eligible under the program. Start with the Department of Education’s guide, which includes an index to help identify the right program for your group or goal. The guide also gives the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number for each grant program. Be sure to include this number when contacting the Department of Education about a grant to ensure that you receive the appropriate information.