Jodi Obenstine (left) and Loretta Zumbro supervised Liberty Elementary School District 25's deployment of Motorola Xoom tablets. The fact that students can use the tablets for anytime, anywhere Internet research is an especially valuable educational benefit, Obenstine says.

Nov 01 2011

Tablets Kickstart Innovative Learning in the Classroom

Schools increasingly are drawn to these touch-screen devices — and the apps that bring them to life.

For Liberty Elementary School District 25 (Liberty ESD), tablet computing arrived in the form of a "tech caravan" — literally a Tupperware container filled with tablet and notebook devices that Director of Technology Services Jodi Obenstine lugged to the K–8 district's five schools in Buckeye and Goodyear, Ariz.

"We traveled throughout our district this past spring and met with the students, teachers and leadership teams at each school," Obenstine says. "We let them experiment with the devices, and we answered questions." The feedback they provided "became a crucial part of our decision-making process," she adds.

Ultimately, Liberty ESD officials chose the Motorola Xoom, deploying 330 of the Wi-Fi–enabled, 10.1-inch devices. "The students gravitated toward the Xoom, which has the fun factor," says District Technology Coach Loretta Zumbro. "They were quickly engaged and figured out easily how to use the features."

Liberty ESD is one of several innovative districts evaluating and implementing tablet devices for classroom use. As the variety and functionality of tablets continues to grow and evolve, school leaders will be pressed to determine how these devices can best meet the specific needs of their teachers and students.

Fine by Them

Liberty ESD's younger students were especially quick to embrace the Xoom devices, which are stored on carts in select classrooms. In one of the first-grade classrooms, "the kids didn't even need instruction in how to turn them on," Obenstine says. "The issue has been more that some teachers felt uncomfortable letting younger students use the tablets," under the mistaken presumption that the children weren't technically proficient enough to handle the devices.

Tony Fernandez, IT director for Academica, a Miami-based service and support organization for charter schools in five states, has seen a similar enthusiasm for tablets among Academica students. "Touch-screen operability suits young students' motor skills much better than using a mouse and keyboard setup," he explains.

Just this fall, Academica rolled out 450 Acer Iconia Tab devices for its pre-K through 12th-grade students. Fernandez says Academica was drawn to the tablet because it gives students the opportunity to work with technology that they'll use outside of school. Plus, "teachers can walk around, observe student behavior and take notes without sitting down."

Convenient Computing

Tablets are the latest "convenient computing" platform to captivate the market, says Richard Shim, senior analyst at DisplaySearch. The devices "don't offer lots of performance, but they do have a long battery life and are more affordable," he explains.

What's more, he adds, the tablet is "the first computing product that meets the specific needs of students. It's intuitive for students."

Bettendorf Community School District officials are discovering these benefits as they pilot tablets this fall. The eight-school district in eastern Iowa tested tablets, notebooks and netbooks before selecting the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF101. The device's unique power supply features were especially compelling, says Marcia Hartman, the district's director of technology.

"We knew that battery life was an ongoing issue in classrooms — the netbooks we had purchased weren't lasting an entire day," Hartman explains. "But we didn't want it to be an issue for our students."

Students' pre-existing comfort with this type of technology also influenced the district's move toward the Transformer, adds Cathy Ahrens, a social studies teacher at Bettendorf High School, who is using the tablets in some of her classes. "As part of our prep work for this pilot, I surveyed some of my students," she says. "Almost 90 percent of them have used touch-pad devices previously. All of them had Internet access at home. This is a population that is ready for and comfortable with this device."

All About Apps

Many experts, including J. Gerry Purdy, principal analyst of mobile and wireless for the market research firm MobileTrax, believe that the device's real educational value lies in the applications it runs. "There's a great opportunity here for a new paradigm in education," Purdy says. "Many new K–12 content providers are developing education-specific apps," including some for science, technology, engineering and mathematics that use animation.

Liberty ESD's Obenstine shares Purdy's enthusiasm for apps. "There's so much versatility with what we can do," she says. "We're constantly trying out new apps."

A Bright Future

MobileTrax's Purdy believes that "application development offers tremendous potential," adding that he expects to see "new learning methods [emerge] that work for a new generation of students."

Educators agree that tablets, when paired with a growing variety of apps, are helping to upend the traditional learning paradigm, in which teachers served as conduits of information and students functioned merely as information receptacles. "Tablets allow the kids to be information creators," says Matt Degner, associate principal of Bettendorf High School. "Just consuming information isn't enough. We need tablets to be able to do multimedia presentations, to post information online and to do all sorts of new activities."

Certainly, Liberty ESD's Xoom deployment has changed the district in profound, even unexpected, ways. "Using the tablets has given us a great opportunity to talk with students about Internet safety and good digital citizenship," Obenstine says. Other tablet adopters no doubt will discover similar benefits as the devices become more deeply entrenched in the everyday learning experience.


Also in this Issue
For a closer look at the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF101, see "More Than Meets the Eye."


Tapping into Apps

The apps universe may seem infinite, but getting started doesn't have to be daunting. Liberty Elementary School District 25's Jodi Obenstine and Loretta Zumbro say these applications for Android devices are most popular with students and teachers:

1. Camera and video apps, specifically those that come bundled with the Xoom's Android 3.1 Honeycomb operating system
2. Tangram Moment, a puzzle dissection app from Pocket Storm
3. for your Brain — Abaque Lite, a calculator/educational games app from Shoong
4. Math Practice Flash Cards from Studios
5. Algebra Tutor from MathVine
6. X Construction, an animated construction app from CrossConstruct
7. StoryChimes, an interactive storytelling app from Siena Entertainment
8. 50 States, a state informational app from Socratica
9. Math Attack from BPC Technologies

<p>Steve Craft</p>