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Chad Solomon’s 7th grade science students can share in the teaching in his class this year.
That’s because Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, where Solomon teaches, along with 22 other Chicago Public Schools, received sets of iPads for classroom use starting this fall, utilizing federal grant funds.
In Solomon’s class, the iPad has allowed students to break away from relying on “10-year-old textbooks” and engage with real science issues by mapping food deserts and commenting to scientists about their research.
The new device, which debuted last April, changed the game for Solomon, and has already made an impact in schools around Chicago as an educational resource.
In his 11 years at Whitney Young, it’s usually been, “I’m the expert; I’m the master. Here, we’re working on it together.”
Solomon said his students love this approach, so much so that students in morning classes sometimes skip lunch to sit in on his afternoon lessons.
Last week, he used iPads to help students review for final exams this week. In about fifteen minutes, he found and downloaded a free app, called “Clicker,” and set up a review game to go over content to be tested.
In class, his students broke into 10 groups. As they answered questions on their iPads, Solomon said his own iPad updated in real-time, showing him who was and who was not remembering the class content correctly.
This allows him to immediately help students who need it most in a small, private group, he said.
Not only do his students have the chance to interact and receive feedback with an innovative new piece of technology, he said his students see that he is experimenting as a teacher and that, together, they are “pushing the limits of education.”
Chicago Public Schools viewed the iPads in much the same way when deciding to offer the grant. The tech tools have “limitless capabilities for the adoption of educational purposes” and “can support learning across levels and subjects,” said Bobby Otter, a school district representative.
These capabilities are why the district piloted the use of the device in classrooms, Otter said. iPads are now being used to support all types of learning and learners, including students with special needs or limited English language skills, he said.
At Whitney Young, Solomon is using the iPad to enhance curriculum he has always taught. But now his students take part in the “conversation about science in society,” he said.
His class usually covers waterborne disease, which includes looking into the history of cholera epidemics, he said.
His students used iPads this year to research the on-going cholera outbreak in Haiti.
They e-mailed researchers and commented on articles from their own perspectives, he said.
Before the iPad, Solomon said he might have just had just incorporated the Haiti issue by photocopying a news story. But now, because of their input “the students are a part of the story.”
He said that’s exactly what the school wanted when applying for the grant from the school district, something to empower them.
Many Chicago schools applied, and those that were successful submitted innovative proposals explaining “how they were going to use them as an educational device, as opposed to just wanting them,” Otter said.
“It’s gotten teachers excited,” he said. “But more important, it’s gotten students excited.”
iPads in the classroom are, however, about more than getting students engaged.
It is pivotal for schools to integrate technology into the curriculum for its own sake, according to Steven McGee, education researcher and associate professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in Evanston.
Technology is “important for kids to know how to use, in the same way that math or reading or science is important,” said McGee, who teaches classes on integrating technology as part of a curriculum.
It allows “kids to break outside of the school walls and access information that’s of interest to them,” McGee said.
Solomon said his class was able to do just this when students researched food deserts, areas where people cannot easily buy nutritious foods. Students mapped grocery stores, farmers’ markets and urban agriculture in their own neighborhoods around Chicago.
Unlike textbooks, the information his class finds on the iPad is brought up-to-date constantly, he said. And as new information allows students to “update their map mentally,” they can also quickly change it on their iPads.
This wouldn’t be possible with laptops or traditional computers, he said, because they have to be recharged or plugged in. He said the iPads stay charged through the day.
McGee said the iPad’s battery life is not its only benefit. Compared to a laptop, it is a “low-cost” classroom device.
It can help students not only access content, he said, but also become, like Solomon’s students, “producers of information” using apps for music, slideshows and images.
Ideally, each student would have their own iPad with which to do this. McGee said research shows that students are more likely to steal or vandalize classroom sets of resources—like the 32 iPads given to each qualifying school—than those they are held responsible for individually.
That’s unlikely in Chicago schools, however. Otter said that although feedback from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive, the iPad grant was only a pilot, although the district is applying for more money from the state to bring more devices into city schools.
Funding aside, Solomon said he doesn’t see the iPad being a “backpack replacement” just yet, but sees technology making a major impact in the classrooms of the future.
“I feel like we have barely scratched the surface of how these devices will change our classrooms,” he said. “But it will be for the better.”