By Heather Mullinix
It's review day in Kim Herring's pre-calculus class at Cumberland County High School, and students heading into class get their notes and study materials out and prepare for the period to begin.
But there's something different in this classroom. Each student has an iPad assigned to them during the class period. On those tablet computers, they'll find their notes, books and study materials easily available. During class, they can reflect their work onto the Smartboard so that other's can see how they solved a problem.
"It puts their notes, books and calculators in one package," said Herring.
While Herring's class is a pilot program for Cumberland County Schools, schools across the country are finding benefits to putting tablet computers in student's hands. From electronic textbooks that cost less and are more up-to-date than printed books, to programs that allow students to draw, type, take pictures and interact with other students, both in their classroom and around the world, a growing number of schools are putting the new technology to use. Apple estimates 1.5 million iPads are being used in schools.
Herring began using an iPad in her teaching several years ago when the iPad 1 was introduced, using it to interface with her Smartboard and other technology. In January, her classes became a pilot program for using the iPad as instructional tools thanks to recovered mini-grants from the Basic Education Program capital funds and from Roane State Dual Credit revenues.
"I'm always using technology and sharing it," Herring said. "I never hold back from putting it in their hands."
Though Herring and the students find them to be a great tool for learning, Herring said it's a balancing act to keep students focused on the task at hand.
"You have to make sure the technology is not a distraction, but an enhancement," she said. "There has to be respect. The kids respect that when it's time for class, it's time for class. And after you watch them, you can know if someone is not doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Students log into the iPad, and many have customized the home screen with favorite photos. There are some game applications that they play waiting for class to begin, but then, Herring says, everyone gets down to work.
Students have the applications Evernote and also use the application Penultimate. Evernote is among a vast number of free applications for the iPad, iPhone, Android and computers available to consumers. Penultimate costs 99 cents.
"Evernote allows you to type notes, but with math, you really need to be able to draw out the equations, and Penultimate works with Evernote to allow that," Herring explained.
At the end of class, students sync their notes to their Evernote account and can then access those notes from any computer or SmartPhone device.
"Some use it on their phones, and they can have their notes wherever they are," Herring said.
Technology has been a part of Herring's classes since she began teaching. She's taught computer programing, a variety of math classes and even taught art for a period of time. There, she taught students how technology could be used creatively and introduced videography — something she's continued to use. She tries to bring the enthusiasm from those art and computer programming classes to her math and science classes, as well.
"Students know I'm tough, but I try to throw some fun stuff in, and they know they're going to learn," Herring said.
Her physics students last spring made videos recording their successes and their failed attempts at projects, offering a way to learn from mistakes. Students also made instructional videos, where they had to teach a class concept. The iPads not only allow for easy filming and editing, but also easy collaboration between students and groups.
Another advantage is it reduces what students have to bring to class, since their textbook is also on the iPad.
"You don't have to bring a book to class," explained Karri Netherton. "Your books, notes, everything is right there."
One of the best uses of the iPads is the ability to immediately look up answers to questions the students pose.
"Sometimes, I don't want to answer their questions directly," she said. "We'll discuss a theory or point in class and if someone has a question, they'll switch over to the Internet and find the answer."
That helps students learn how to look for information and because it's happening right when they need the information, it aids in retention as well because the information is immediately put into use.
Nithya Kanagasegar is no rookie to Herring's classroom, having taken part in the physics class last spring. She enjoyed using the iPads to video experiments and class projects, and likes how accessible resources are on the tablets.
"It's easy to get online and find something to help explain a concept," Kanagasegar said. "Then, we can reflect it on the screen and share it with everyone."
Austin Brown agreed. "The availability of resources is very helpful. You can look something up on Google in just a few seconds."
"We're a visual society, and the kids want to learn by watching, but they also want to be involved in that," Herring said. "This gives them the tools to do that."
While Herring has found ways to integrate the tablet technology in her classes, the Career and Technical Education program has found iPads can help students reach beyond their classrooms through virtual field trips.
"We can do virtual field trips and collaborative projects with the two high schools here or with high schools around the world," Josette Schlafer explained to the Cumberland County Board of Education in the summer.
Schlafer helped write a grant that brought $75,000 to Cumberland County to support the program. Each CTE teacher will be provided an iPad that can support virtual conferences.
One thing holding back greater use of iPads and other wireless technology in Cumberland County schools is the aging computer infrastructure in the schools. But that's about to be fixed following a vote of the Cumberland County Board of Education in August to use $600,000 of capital outlay funds not needed for construction projects at Pleasant Hill and Pine View elementary schools to complete a wireless Internet upgrade at all county schools.
The project will install wireless Internet access at all schools, with coverage in all instructional and office spaces that is dependable. It would use industrial grade wireless units that can support 30 to 70 devices connected at fast speeds.
Herring uses an Apple wireless hub at the moment, and finds it able to support the 24 iPads in use in her classroom, but CCHS recently purchased numerous new laptop computers that could strain the existing wireless infrastructure.