The SAS Curriculum Pathways team visits a number of schools throughout the year--rural, urban, small, large, low- and high-performing. Given the nature of our work, we pay close attention to technology integrations. Do teachers share device carts? Are there computer labs? Are students encouraged to use their own devices? Is the school 1:1? More importantly, we take note of how the technology is being integrated. When are students using the devices? What are they doing on them?
Integration quality varies from school to school, independent of technology access. We've sometimes found ourselves impressed by the one-desktop classroom and disheartened by 1:1 integrations. On such occasions, we've observed devices simply being used to entertain students or keep them quiet after finishing their work; we've also seen devices being cast aside, never coming out of students' backpacks.
But no such squandering of opportunity occurs in Patti Donnelly's class at Durham Academy in Durham, NC, which has been 1:1 iPads for the past four years and has earned recognition as an Apple Distinguished School. Although Donnelly admits that the school has travelled a bumpy road, the integration seems flawless to the casual classroom observer: students use their devices as needed while engaged in on-task, collaborative activities.
How has the school learned from experience? Tweaking the integration started with a simple pedagogy-forward goal: "It’s not about going paperless, it’s about enhancing learning," Donnelly told us. Using this mantra as a foundation, Donnelly and her colleagues identified several tips for other schools.
1. Identify a solid team.
Durham Academy's Middle School Digital Learning Coordinator, Karl Schaefer, spearheaded the initiative in 2012 with the help of English Language Arts teachers, Donnelly and Julie Williams. The team decided to "start small and go for it." After experimenting with both iPads and laptops, the team decided the size, durability, and flexibility of the iPad best fit their students' needs. From there, the team expanded their "go for it" attitude when searching for student tools and resources. The tech team and administration encourages teachers to experiment with various apps and report back during the formalized Tech Tuesday, time devoted to sharing experiences with other Durham Academy teachers.
Donnelly emphasized the school’s adaptation to the ever-evolving app space. "In the beginning," she noted, "Google Apps for Education did not play well on iOS devices, so we turned to Evernote as a portfolio for student work. More recently, however, the Google Drive app improved, and we started to make that transition." Donnelly emphasized communication and said it takes a village to stay on top of new apps and updates.
2. Prioritize pedagogy PD, minimize tech-focused sessions.
Have you ever been to an education conference where people preach "pedagogy must lead technology," but find sessions titled "10 iPad apps every educator should install"? Donnelly suggests avoiding the lure of a catchy title in favor of sessions aligned to your pedagogical goals and "treating the iPad as a tool, not the centerpiece of learning." Proven, time-tested pedagogical strategies will continue to be effective regardless of technological advances; however, technology can still enhance those strategies. If we learned anything from our observations at Durham Academy, it was the importance of a robust understanding of instructional best practices. Donnelly reminded us, "The point is not to add more; it’s to take the tool that works best and make the most of it." The takeaway? Start with good teaching, and add technology as appropriate.
3. Engage students in deliberate onboarding.
Effective integration and instruction goes a long way in classroom management; however, the team at Durham Academy is diligent about engaging students in deliberate training. At the beginning of the year, Schaefer and the team lead students in a two-day iPad passport program. During this training, the team not only takes advantage of Common Sense Media's free Digital Compass curriculum, but Schaefer also created and published the school's own Digital Device Passbook iBook, which takes students through Durham Academy-specific guidelines and policies. The iBook culminates with a quiz that students must pass before being issued their device. Schaefer's approach is rounded out by a thorough FAQ document posted publicly for teachers, parents, and students. Donnelly commented, "The book is really as much for the teachers as is it for the students" because it adds structure and policies about training students to use their devices productively.
4. Strive for consistency across classes.
It is not uncommon to walk into a 1:1 school and see heavy iPad integration in one room and unused devices in another. At Durham Academy, teaching students to use technology as a productivity tool is valued; thus, consistency across classes is a priority. Although some teachers are more comfortable with devices than others, all classrooms use a common space for student portfolios. Donnelly demonstrated their shared folder system via Evernote, commenting on its advantages for supporting a paperless workflow, sharing and communicating with parents, as well as holding students accountable for their work. She added, "When students are using the same system, tools, and resources in each of their classes, less time is spent teaching about the device itself." Additionally, when there is a question about a particular app, instructors can point students back to the Digital Device Passport iBook, which is full of tutorials about the school's most popular apps.
5. Encourage autonomy—trust in safety nets
In order to teach students to view technology as a productivity tool, they need to be able to experiment with different resources and find the ones that work best for their preferences. We, as adults, all use different tools for completing tasks, from taking notes to surfing the web. Durham Academy encourages such autonomy by allowing students to choose their own apps through the school's self-service "store." The technology team uploads school-approved and licensed apps to the custom self-service store, giving students the freedom to select the ones they want to download.
Back in the classroom, Donnelly says she strives to "facilitate on-demand curiosity" by allowing students to use whatever apps they want at anytime during the class. To regulate off-task behavior, she employs the "double tap the home button" method. If a student quickly exists out of an app, they rarely have time to completely close it; thus, by having students double tap the home button, she can see what apps they were most recently using. For repeated off-task behavior, Donnelly and the other Durham Academy teachers can have students refer back to the "Distractions, Organization, and Multitasking" chapter of Schaefer's Digital Device Passport iBook for a quick reminder of the school's policies and strategies for overcoming distractions.
In closing, Donnelly reminded us that iPads are "just a device," nothing more. Not a replacement for good pedagogical methods. Not a silver bullet. Simply a device. Observing her classroom, it becomes clear that the success of Durham Academy's integration can be attributed to this mindset. Lessons do not revolve around the technology; it exists as a resource among others—just as it exists for the average adult. Through careful planning, a keen awareness of the tendencies of middle schoolers, a strong team, and a priority for high-quality teaching, the model at Durham Academy is a great starting place for other educational institutions.
To read more about best practices for integrating mobile devices, check out our book, Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Developers, Educators, & Learners.