Technology Coordinator Arline Pique started the tablet PC project seven years ago, and since has expanded it throughout the district.

Jul 23 2007

Turning to Tablets

Cincinnati district equips all teachers with tablet PCs, changing the way they work and connect with students.

Cincinnati district equips all teachers with tablet PCs, changing the way they work and connect with students.

When the Indian Hill Exempted Village School District, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, put plans in place for a new high school seven years ago, district Technology Coordinator Arline Pique saw an opportunity to improve the way teachers used technology.

Pique was already committed to replacing teachers’ desktop PCs with notebooks and eventually going wireless so they could work anywhere in the new school and at home. But when she considered the then-new tablet PC, she discovered two truths that proved to be irresistible. The new format could dramatically alter the way teachers worked and save the district money.

Valuable lessons have become interactive, thanks to the tablet PC, which allows users to write and edit on the computer screen with an electronic stylus.

“It’s a very natural mode for using a computer,” Pique says. While interactive whiteboards also let users mark up electronic documents and images, Pique says tablet PCs make more sense economically and logistically. Together with a classroom projector, each tablet cost about $500 less than providing each teacher with a conventional PC, interactive whiteboard and projector.

Tablet screens, designed to be manipulated, are sturdier than ordinary PCs. And because teachers can use the new machines anywhere in the classroom, they can write notes while facing students. The Toshiba Portege tablets distributed to Indian Hill High School’s 58 teachers run a Tablet PC edition of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system. The machines include Microsoft Word and Excel, as well as Windows Journal — through which users can create handwritten documents electronically and annotate Word documents, PDFs and Web pages.

Trial and Error

When Indian Hill’s teachers moved into their new building for the 2003–2004 academic year, they carried the tablets they had received. The teachers had gotten a one-hour orientation session on the machines the previous spring.

“We didn’t have the luxury of more extensive training,” Pique notes. “We said, ‘Here’s how you turn on the machines. Here’s how you get into the software. Here’s how you use the stylus.’ And we sent the faculty home over the summer to play with them.”

As far as developing the best classroom uses for the devices, Pique planned on providing ideas the next fall as the site technology facilitator. She also depended on more experienced faculty to take the lead.

Veteran English teacher Dorelle Malucci did not disappoint. “I’m constantly trying to teach my students that reading is really interacting with the text — how to look for what the author is doing, how to capture your own mental process of what you’re reading,” she says.

“I make a PDF file of an actual passage from a text, and we’ll talk about that passage. And then I can have the kids come up, grab the pen and highlight or note things that they have found.”

Last year, the English department received an additional 20 tablets for use in the classroom. So Malucci had her students work in groups to plan, revise and comment on their own writing.

“It’s a different way of interacting with that text,” she observes. “The tablet gives them that freedom of the page, where they can write at an angle, draw arrows, make connections, do a Web. They get so used to ordinary word processing: ‘I type it, it looks polished, it looks finished, it looks perfect.’ And it’s not. But they don’t want to break into their pretty page [and make needed revisions].”

Creating New Tablet Uses

Malucci uses her tablet to grade student papers, which she downloads from the school’s secure server. After she makes her handwritten comments, she returns the documents to the students’ folders.

“The nicest outcome from grading this way — and it’s not something I planned — is that now I have all of their writing on my tablet,” Malucci adds. “When I have parent conferences, all I have to do is pull it up.”

Math department chair Dave Terrell was also an early adopter, mainly using his tablet to present class notes, which he saved for students to review. As a result, he says, his class stayed more focused on the concepts he was teaching than on filling their spiral notebooks with what he was writing.

“Some children really are not successful as note takers. Instead I told the kids, ‘Just watch and see what’s going on,’ ” says Terrell, who became the high school’s assistant principal last year.

Terrell and other math teachers have also connected graphing calculators to their tablets. For example, they can capture a succession of screen shots from the calculator to show how a parabolic shape changes as variables in its quadratic equation change. They also use the stylus to include their own annotations.

First-year math teacher Melanie Raby has followed suit in her calculus, advanced-placement statistics, and algebra II classes. “I use the Internet a lot to capture screen shots of animated graphs at different points and before-and-after shots that show curves revolving around different axes,” she says.

Adding Expectations

Pique says the success stories involving Indian Hill’s tablets have multiplied since they debuted four years ago. Over the next two years, she ordered 80 more tablets for teachers at Indian Hill’s middle school and two elementary schools. And this year, the high school teachers will trade their old tablets for IBM Lenovo X60s, at a cost to the district of about $1,700 each, including a three-year service plan.

But Indian Hill administrators and teachers admit that the regular use of tablets by the Indian Hill’s teachers is a work in progress. “It’s been a gradual process,” says Terrell. “Some of us are less patient than others, but we’re seeing a continuing growth in its usage. It’s becoming a matter of course.”

Last year, Indian Hill added minimal expectations for technology use as part of teacher evaluations. The requirements include answering e-mail within 24 hours and posting information, such as class notes or homework assignments, online. Terrell predicts that regular tablet use will make it into the mix.

“We need to talk more about those curricular issues that warrant the use of the tablet,” adds Malucci, who has done workshops for fellow high school teachers in the past.

“In terms of training people to use the tablet, I can do that in five minutes,” she says. “There’s nothing tricky about the software. It’s all thinking about the curriculum. I’m always thinking, ‘How can I tap into this? How can I get this to enhance what the students are doing?’ ”

A Tablet Wish List

For all the success Indian Hills’ educators have had with tablets, they would still like to see some improvements:

  • District technology coordinator Arline Pique says interactive whiteboards let teachers cover up parts of the screen electronically so they can reveal content gradually or post a quiz question without showing the answer underneath. Pique would like to see similar capabilities in tablets.
  • English teacher Dorelle Malucci says the slow wireless connection between her tablet and the projector in her classroom forces her to plug in via cable. “We ran into a problem [where] if they were communicating wirelessly to the projector, they then couldn’t communicate wirelessly to the network,” Pique adds.
  • Math teacher Melanie Raby adds, “It would be nice if they could have a spellchecker for handwriting. When you’re thinking, speaking and writing at the same time, sometimes you miss something.”
<p>Photo credit: STEPHEN WEBSTER</p>

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