Friday, December 13, 2013
BY SUSAN MCMILLAN Staff Writer
Freshman Molly Searway's face, topped with a mass of messy hair, appeared on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, projected by an Apple TV mounted to the ceiling. In the video, she made a face, brushed her hair and then held up a package of English muffins.
"Me desayuno," she said, Spanish for "I eat breakfast."
In other videos, students pantomimed the steps of their morning routines while narrating in Spanish, a homework assignment for Kelly Frey's Spanish 2 class at Maranacook Community High School.
Some videos were a single, simple 20-second clip; others featured dissolves, music or voiceovers, all recorded and edited together on the students' Apple iPads, which then streamed the videos through the Apple TV so the students could see their classmates' work.
Students said making the videos was more fun and engaging than it would have been to write the same sentences. Frey was glad the assignment gave students another too-rare opportunity to practice speaking Spanish.
"This is standing my whole discipline on its ear, and it's really exciting," Frey said. "I'm being upfront with the students that I'm going to make a lot of mistakes, and they're coming with me."
Like their peers at Maranacook and dozens of other schools around the state, Frey and her students are going through a process of trial, error, discovery and occasional glitches as they adjust to using iPads for instruction and learning.
One-to-one computing programs, in which everyone has their own computer, are not new to Maine high schools and middle schools. But since the Maine Learning Technology Initiative launched in 2002, the computers have always been laptops. This is the first year that a tablet computer has been an option in the initiative.
Schools could choose from among three devices this year: the iPad, an Apple laptop and an HP laptop. The iPad was the least expensive and by far the most popular, chosen to be used in about 60 percent of the participating schools.
In Maranacook's district, Readfield-based Regional School Unit 38, students and teachers at the middle school, and teachers at the high school, were already familiar with Apple computers from previous participation in the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.
Between the two Apple options, RSU 38 leaders chose the iPad in large part because it was less expensive than the laptop. That was especially important because the district wanted to provide the devices to all students and teachers in sixth through 12th grades, instead of just seventh and eighth grades, for which the state pays the entire cost.
Cost wasn't the only consideration, though. Staff also saw the iPad as an opportunity and a challenge because a tablet can -- and, they would argue, should -- be used in different ways than a laptop.
"When I think about the MacBook Airs, if we had gotten those, we'd be pretty comfortable," said Diane MacGregor, technology integration specialist for Mararanacook Community Middle School. "With these, there's so much opportunity and ways to do things differently. It's so exciting and feels really revolutionary."
The iPad's portability, intuitive touchscreen, bulit-in camera and microphone and the multitude of applications available -- many of them free -- make it easy to create and share lessons and assignments, Maranacook staff and students said.
There have been high-profile problems in at least two school districts in other states that attempted to distribute tablet computers to students on a large scale.
Guilford County Schools in North Carolina has suspended the use of 15,000 leased Amplify tablet because of hardware problems that created safety concerns, including melted chargers.
Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the country, has a plan to spend $1 billion on iPads for every student and teacher, but a limited rollout this year has been marred by a security breach and uncertainty about costs.
Maranacook staff and students said their biggest issue has been acclimating to the iPads, particularly the touchscreens and the range of apps available.
There have been technical problems, too. Before an upgrade a few weeks into school, the iPads overtaxed and slowed down Maranacook's wireless netowrks because most of the content and programs students use are accessed via the Internet instead of being stored on the iPads.
One of the most common concerns with the iPads was typing, which is done on the touchscreen instead of a physical keyboard.
The Maine Learning Technology Initiative provided a small number of keyboards. At Maranacook, there are a few in each classroom for students to check out, and some parents also bought keyboards for their children.
Schools with longer experience using iPads advised RSU 38 not to buy keyboards, said Jan Kolenda, the district technology director.
"The kids won't use them. They adapt," Kolenda said the advice was. "Almost all the kids say that's not a problem. They're used to smaller devices, like a phone."
MacGregor said the transition to iPads has been fairly easy for Maranacook middle school, where every student and teacher has used an Apple device for a decade.
Mararanacook high school students, however, used Linux-based laptops for only three years before this. Technology integration coordinator Nate Savage said only a small fraction of the high school's teachers are using the iPads to somewhere near their full potential, meaning for more than Web searches and writing papers.
Savage said he's trying to make teachers more comfortable and familiar with the iPads by having them observe each other using the devices in class and through show-and-tell at staff meetings.
"The big thing is that you have to have that mentality that Kelly (Frey) had. They have to be open to suggestions," Savage said. "You might run into some stumbling blocks along the way, but it's OK. We're still moving forward."
Frey has embraced the use of iPads more enthusiastically than almost any teacher at Maranacook. She attended five days of training at Foxcroft Academy and seeks recommendations from other teachers.
French teacher John Hirsch, for example, introduced Frey to Memrise, an app her students use to study Spanish vocabulary. Frey has recorded herself saying the vocabulary words so students can hear the correct pronunciation.
Frey said her biggest challenge with the iPads is finding the time to research and play around with new apps she might want to use.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Searway, a freshman from Readfield, said she appreciates how lightweight the iPad is and the fact that the battery lasts 10 hours, allowing her to leave her charger at home. She likes being able to tap on a word in a text to bring up the definition.
Marilyn Branagan, a sophomore from Wayne, said eBackpack, a program for assigning and turning in homework, is helpful for students who might forget to write down an assignment or is prone to losing papers.
Both said typing on the virtual keyboard was a little difficult at first, but now they're used to it, and they can even switch to a Spanish keyboard that includes accents and special characters.
Although games and the Internet are always at hand, Searway said most of the educational apps her teachers use are so engaging that students don't get distracted.
At the middle school, students in Aimee Reiter's class about conservation are taking part in the grant-funded Lunder New Naturalists program with the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and several other schools.
So far they've used their iPads to research Teddy Roosevelt's involvement in conservation efforts and contribute their findings to a timeline. They created slideshows about conservation issues in an app called Keynote and added sound and effects through the video-editing app iMovie.
Chrisana Zirtidis, a seventh grader from Manchester, said shooting and editing video and photos is much more difficult on a laptop than an iPad.
Reiter said her students took to the technology right away and have become better troubleshooters than most of the adults in the school.
"Not every time we use something, whether technology or pen and paper, does everything run smoothly," she said. "I think it's great to have these kids on the cutting edge."
Susan McMillan -- 621-5645