News Column

CMS Readies Teachers for Influx of iPads

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Teachers in Charlotte, N.C., huddled around iPads last week, hoping that by the time school starts Aug. 27, they'll be half as good at making digital movies as the Washam Elementary fifth-graders whose video report on Lewis and Clark they watched.

Digital learning could be the hottest trend in education for the coming school year. In September, almost 4,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students will get classroom iPads, while about 20 schools will invite students and teachers to use their own tablets, phones and e-readers.

The devices generate the buzz. But in schools around the Charlotte region, the real revolution is the way teachers are using technology to make lessons more creative, challenging, relevant and, yes, fun.

"It's just absolutely crazy what technology can do in the classroom," said Diane Adams, principal at Providence Spring Elementary in south Charlotte. Her students will be telling stories with iMovie and creating their own textbooks with online publishing.

"It is a very powerful learning strategy," Adams added, "but we don't do technology for the sake of technology."

CMS has slowed down and scaled back on its January announcement that all 159 schools would have Wi-Fi and a "Bring Your Own Technology" environment in August. As schools around the country are discovering, new devices and new freedoms bring a raft of new challenges.

On Wednesday, the CMS board will vote on a revised Internet access policy that allows students to bring their own devices, warns that there is no expectation of privacy, makes families responsible for any theft or damage, and promises that CMS will provide "digital citizenship education."

The district also is putting together a panel of faculty, parents and students to guide the BYOT rollout.

Meanwhile, CMS is charging ahead with what most experts say is the real key to success: helping teachers who didn't grow up with touch screens learn new ways to teach today's kids.

Sarah Kerman, a North Mecklenburg High junior who has blogged about the BYOT push, applauds that focus. One thing students know, she said, is that a good or bad lesson depends on the teacher, not the technology.

"If you're going to spend all this money," she said, "you need to make sure it's working."

Are textbooks obsolete?

As this past school year drew to a close, science teacher Kate Duda tested a new lesson for 2012-13 on her fifth-graders at Paw Creek Elementary.

Duda is helping CMS create technology-based lesson plans that will meet new, national "common core" standards, which debut in North Carolina this year. Her lesson on heredity used techniques ranging from old school to high-tech -- all at the same time.

"Variety is really the key," Duda explained. "I can't even remember the last time we've opened a textbook."

Duda introduced the big idea -- organisms are similar to their parents -- by asking students to study photos of human and animal families on their laptops and the classroom SMARTboard. Then students broke into small groups that rotated through four activities.

One group used sticky notes to post their own inherited traits, such as freckles, hair color and type of earlobes, on a bulletin board decorated with a "family tree."

Another went to the SMARTboard to flip through photos illustrating such traits as tongue curling and dimples.

A third used iPads to read a Discovery Education piece about a litter of kittens and answer questions afterward.

The final group used classroom laptops for an eduSmart lesson with animated illustrations. For instance, a segment on penguins had pop-up features on the differences in their feet and beaks.

Wayne Fisher, who's in charge of elementary math and science for CMS, was watching the demonstration. He noticed the kids were having a hard time keeping a connection on the school's new wireless network.

"It keeps jumping in and out. I'm not sure why," Fisher said.

The kids moved to desktop computers in the classroom and resumed their online lessons. "With technology," Fisher said, "you always have a Plan A and a Plan B."

Plan B for BYOT

The district is on its own Plan B for this year's technology rollout.

When the 2011-12 budget came in bigger than expected, CMS used about $6 million in county money to expand its Wi-Fi network into all 159 schools. Another $4 million bought iPads for all school administrators and central-office leaders, while CMS gave groups of teachers a chance to compete for classroom tablets.

More than 970 "learning communities" -- grade levels, high school departments and groups of teachers who handle special classes -- submitted proposals for putting tablets to use. There was enough money to provide classroom iPads for 73 groups, scattered throughout the district.

Meanwhile, foundations, business partners, PTAs and other donors have been working to make sure schools have the digital devices they need, whether that means laptops, tablets or interactive whiteboards. Many high-poverty schools have used federal Title I money to bolster their technology arsenal.

In January, CMS technology chief Scott Muri announced that come August 2012, the district would let students and faculty bring their own phones, tablets, laptops and e-readers for classroom use. He described the BYOT launch, which would have been one of the biggest in the nation, as a way to let families help CMS move quickly into 21st-century learning.

Kerman, the North Meck student, heard his pitch along with a group of students in Mecklenburg Youth Voice. She says the teens were skeptical, raising questions about everything from the risk of theft to the Internet access allowed by CMS filters.

Muri left for another district in the spring. Interim technology chief Kay Hall said there were too many unresolved questions for a district-wide August launch.

Instead, she said, more than 20 schools have asked to pilot BYOT. She's surveying those schools to see if they have a plan, an oversight committee and involvement of parents and students. Based on that, she said, she'll pick the schools to act as pilots in September, after the opening of schools and the Democratic National Convention are over.

Having a small number of pilots means CMS can send special tech support into all of them, Hall said. Lack of full-time tech support was one of the concerns raised by teachers.

After 60 days, the pilot schools will report on their successes and struggles, and CMS will figure out how quickly to expand BYOT access.

"There are a lot of things we do know," Hall said, "but there are things we don't know."

Excitement builds

CMS won't distribute students' iPads to the classrooms that won them until September, but teachers got theirs in May. Since then they've been experimenting with the various applications. All the classroom iPads come with iMovie for videos, Excel for spreadsheets, Pages for documents and Keynote for presentations.

At Greenway Park Elementary, the "specials team" -- art, music, physical education and media center teachers -- got classroom iPads. Principal Paula Rao said plans range from letting students make videos to demonstrate hands-on skills to using Skype for video teacher conferences. "The possibilities are endless," she said.

Lynn Keith, technology facilitator at Providence Spring, says digital devices let adults teach in the world today's children occupy. In addition to reading and writing stories, she said, students need to know how to accompany them with video.

"It's not the same story that I wrote when I was in third grade," she said. "It's not just words anymore. It's pictures."

A two-day technology conference for CMS teachers at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology last week included such topics as using Minecraft and other computer games in lessons, understanding how teens use social media and helping elementary students create blogs. Adults scanning the agenda were bound to feel their ages, with sessions such as "Incorporating Glogster and Mixbook into Wiki."

Market is growing

While CMS has the largest population in the region, virtually all public, private and charter schools are exploring ways to teach through technology.

Mooresville Graded Schools, which provides laptops for all fourth- through 12th-graders, was dubbed "the de facto national model of the digital school" by the New York Times this year.

In the coming school year, North Carolina begins replacing bubble-in paper exams with online testing, a move that's designed to gauge more sophisticated problem-solving skills.

Some families are trying to keep up. At the Northlake Target in Charlotte, team leader Mary Julia Moore said some "younger buyers" who appeared to be in elementary school were picking out iPads for school.

While iPads will be big in CMS classrooms this year, Hall said the district isn't telling parents to buy their own.

"We have to be very careful about recommending what device to buy," she said.

Even at the schools that eventually allow personal devices, students won't be required to bring them. When personal devices are used in lessons, there will be school technology available for students who don't have their own, officials have said.

Cheri Powers, a third-grade teacher at Olde Providence Elementary, said e-readers provide low-cost access to a wide range of books, in the classroom and at home. Children find them more engaging than the traditional paper version, she said.

"Any technology that encourages excitement about learning and encourages curiosity is a plus," she said.

Staff writer Madeline Hurley contributed.