Going paperless: Studies look into the effectiveness of learning with iPads in Encinitas’ school district

Going paperless: Studies look into the effectiveness of learning with iPads in Encinitas’ school district
A student at El Camino Creek puts together a presentation using an iPad. Every third through six-grader in the Encinitas Union School District has an iPad. New research, including a thesis and a study from the University of San Diego, is looking at how the iPads impact student learning. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — In Lindsay Duncan’s class at El Camino Creek, one fourth grade student looked up the definition of “blubber.” One girl found a suitable picture of a whale and attached it to her presentation about marine life. 

Books, paper and pencils weren’t in the hands of any of Duncan’s students — only iPads. These days, it’s a common sight in classrooms throughout the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD). Every third through six-grader at EUSD has an iPad, and the district is looking at rolling out more iPads for younger students. Meanwhile, researchers are looking at how the rapidly growing technology is impacting learning.

Duncan is among those researchers. She recently wrote a thesis on iPads in schools after surveying 120 fourth-graders and their parents last school year, when the pilot program debuted. Further, the University of San Diego is slated to release a study this summer on the use of iPads in the district.

“Most people think all technology is great,” Duncan said. “Without rushing to that conclusion, my question was: How might this affect kids? Are they (the iPads) motivational? And I was interested in how students and parents perceive the iPads.”

Duncan’s research indicates students largely believe the iPads are a valuable tool. Parents also see the iPads as beneficial, but some have some reservations with the technology.

Notably, 90 percent of students said the iPad aided their learning. For one, they liked the instant feedback that comes with iPads. Students no longer have to wait days for test results — now it’s a matter of minutes.

“The questions are still fresh in their minds and they can figure out right then what they can work on or improve,” Duncan said. “We had to take a paper test a few weeks ago, and the students just didn’t seem engaged.”

Students overwhelmingly said the iPads made math easier to understand, more so than other subjects. Duncan said that’s likely because students are given a step-by-step animation of how to complete problems. If they’re incorrect, the devices highlight where they went wrong on the spot.

Also, she noted some applications offer “awards” or “achievements” for completing problems, making learning more interactive and motivational.

“Those can be really motivational,” Duncan said. “Students really like challenges like that.”

Most parents noted that their children were more engaged when using the iPads. They also liked that their children were gaining exposure to a variety of computer programs.

Indeed, Duncan recalled how she recently let groups in her class decide which app they wanted to utilize for a history presentation. They could use a movie-making app, arrange slides or explain the information with a story panel app.

But some parents weren’t as enthusiastic about the iPads. They worried the novelty of the technology would wear off over time, along with engagement. They stated it’s important that technology doesn’t replace hands-on learning.

To that end, Duncan estimates her class spends 40 to 70 percent of the day on their iPads, and the students can take the devices home if they have homework. It’s all about finding a balance, she said.

“They still need P.E., to read from paperback books, to do cursive, to practice how to write and make things with their hands,” Duncan said.

As for teaching, Duncan said the biggest challenge of the iPads is making sure all of her students stay on task. Also, she has to focus on cutting down on distractions inherent with the machines.

There are some built in safeguards. The district filters inappropriate websites and teachers can track student progress from their own iPads to make sure each student is on the ball.

“I know who needs help — it’s very targeted in that sense,” Duncan said.

Beyond that, Duncan said she established strict rules for what’s OK with the iPads at the beginning of the school year.

“I don’t give them a lot of free time with the iPads because I don’t want them playing games,” Duncan said. “They’re forbidden from downloading apps or anything like.”

“I want students to view them as an educational tool,” she added.

Overall, Duncan said her research, as well as her experiences as a teacher, have made her believe iPads have a permanent place in the classroom.

So far, the district has spent $1.7 million on 3,500 iPads for the third through six-graders at its nine schools. Most of the funds have come from Proposition P, a $44 million bond that was passed in 2010. Over 30 years, the bond will pay for facility upgrades and technology improvements throughout the district.

Currently, the district is weighing whether to purchase iPads for all of its K-2 students with bond money, depending on the results of a pilot program for younger students that launched this year. If the district opts to buy the iPads, they’ll be distributed over the next 18 months.

David Miyashiro, assistant superintendent of educational services for the district, said the iPads could save money in the long term. He noted the district spends $200,000 to $300,000 per year on workbooks for language arts and math.

“By migrating to a digital solution we will free ourselves from dependency on these outdated resources,” Miyashiro said.

In the meantime, three researchers from the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center are also studying the iPads. They’re conducting a case study at fifth and sixth-grade classrooms to gauge how the district can better train teachers at EUSD, and possibly other districts, in iPad management.

“Our focus in this study is on teacher practice — what teachers do and what types of activities and experiences students have as a result, including how this varies across individuals and content areas,” said Roxanne Ruzic, director of research with the Mobile Technology Learning Center.

Throughout the school year, the researchers have observed students and teachers in the classroom, as well as interviewed teachers and talked informally with students. They’ll present their findings to EUSD this summer.

Erika Daniels, co-coordinator of the middle level educational credential program at Cal State San Marcos, said that more teaching programs are integrating iPad-specific training into the their curriculum. Included in these lessons are how to handle a classroom where each student has an iPad.

“In our educational technology classes, we incorporate iPad and other technology training into our lessons,” Daniels said. “It’s a another tool for a complete teacher.”

The training is new and came about following the “explosion” of iPads at school districts across the country, Daniels said.

She cautioned that the iPads should only be “a means to a larger end,” and thus are not meant to replace teachers.

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  1. Carol Van Vooren says:

    Congratulations to Lindsey on her “most read” thesis at California State University San Marcos for her Master’s Degree in Educational Administration.

  2. If the methodology was to ask students “Do you think the iPad helps you learn?” I’m surprised 10% said, “No!” And the bland statement – oft used – that students are more “engaged” similarly tells us little. What we need is hard data that some learning IS going on and base this on what someone thinks is happening. Parents are right to be wary. Those of us around in the early days of personal computers heard how kids were apparently becoming “whizz kids” because they spent so much time “at the computer.” However, that level of “engagement” didn’t actually turn into anything – otherwise we’d all be geniuses today.

    Data and evidence is what we need, not feelings and wishes.

  3. Richard Jones says:

    I liked the article and I do think that iPads/tablets have something to offer students.

    However, I don’t believe the focus on one particular technology is wise – is the iPad the focus or is learning the focus here? Reading the article I feel it is the former dominating.

    Plenty of other tablets (Windows, Android) are here too and plenty more to come – and inevitably better as competition hots up.

    I loved the parents comments about “hands-on” – isn’t that rather the point of tablets and their main attraction?

    • mike hale says:

      I liked the article too, all information is good information as far as I am concerned. The ipad/tablet in schools debate rolls on… its a healthy process particularly as such large interventions of technology in schools is relatively new when you consider how long the present educational frameworks have been in place without it! ipads were were not designed for education but lend themselves to the purpose well. That said I totally agree with Richard that other tablets offer some great solutions – I know of 3 that are angled specifically towards education (Android)! The fact that parents can carry on the learning at home with the same interface that the pupils have been using in the day is useful as the parents may not be up to date or familiar with the current subject teaching practices making it easier to re-enforce the learning at home. I have various pieces of research (international) on ipad/android and some most useful case studies. Happy to share any information.

  4. JLSINCT says:

    Russell Cross’ comment is the only reasonable response to this so-called “study.” I skimmed Ms. Lindsay’s thesis, because at first I couldn’t believe the methodology described by Russell Cross would pass muster in any college or university for a term paper, much less a “thesis.” Unfortunately,the methodology described by Mr. Cross was accurate. This study adds nothing to our knowledge base that should affect what goes on in schools. Ms.Duncan could have substituted an ice cream cone for the iPad in her survey, given students access to ice cream all day, and concluded that students and parents found ice cream to be enjoyable, motivating, and useful for learning. In addition, I must say I was astounded by the spelling and grammatical errors in this thesis, as well as by the informal (i.e., non-scholarly) writing style. My professors in graduate school would never have accepted writing of such poor quality, although I acknowledge the quality of the writing is consistent with the research.

    • Steve Michaliszyn says:

      What’s truly not comical is your blatant misunderstanding and disregard of the article and the thesis that was presented. Your assertion that there is some lack of a “study” here or that the study adds nothing to our “knowledge base” merely solidifies the narrow minded viewpoint and ignorance of many individuals (parents and those reluctant to change). The study from my interpretation was not meant to be a quantitative study of test scores and their correlation to greater intelligence by using alternative learning processes. Nor was the null hypothesis that students preform worse on tests using this new technology, hence incorporating this new tech would ultimately cause less knowledge. This last year was one of the first years implementing a new, ever-present type of technology into learning. The information gathered, be it subjective and merely scratching the surface of understanding, in no way diminishes the importance and viewpoint of these children and their parents alike.

      There will be many studies to come which I’m sure will give improved understanding and quantifiability to the implementation of hand-held devices in cognitive learning. One can’t guarantee that it will be a step in the right direction but more than likely these devices will bring about a much improved way to bring information to all people. ie. Kahn academy and it’s immediate access on a hand held device.

      Just imagine how powerful “ice cream” could be if that was all it took to raise kids level of knowledge or aided in kids studying? I mean if all it took for kids to be more motivated was a piece of candy, I think school programs should start implementing a whole new concept. Ice cream for A’s. That way kids would actually learn more.

      And with regards to Mr. Cross’ comment on “whizz kids” and why we’re not all geniuses today. I guess he hasn’t noticed the things going on in today’s technologically growing society. A couple people who may have been more “engaged” with computers and learning kind of made something for themselves. Maybe you guys even use there technology today, ie, reddit, twitter, facebook. A couple of these “engaged” kids are on the billionaire list. Maybe they learned something more after all. But then again, whether kids like to learn this way or not doesn’t really hold any weight.

      • JLSINCT says:

        Steve- I don’t think I misunderstood a thing. We already know that kids, like their parents, like iPads and other hand-held technology devices. I agree with your reference to such technology being “ever-present” and I suspect that providing the current generation of students with opportunities to engage with learning experiences using new technology MIGHT enhance their learning in some or many situations. However, once we know we have a tool (intervention)that might help hook students into learning activities, and suspect this intervention might enhance learning, it’s time to move beyond our feelings or impressions. Empirical studies can be designed and shed light on this, using experimental and/or quasi-experimental designs. In this study, as in a lot of other schools, it is clear that thousands of taxpayer dollars were spent on these iPads with no research basis to do so before any study was even initiated. With all the cool, great apps available and to be developed, this could revolutionize the quality of education for this generation. Or not. That is the point.

        • Steve Michaliszyn says:

          JLSINCT, (name?)

          It’s really your negative connotation and disregard for actual information acquired by this sample that has a lot to be re-evaluated. This preliminary study along with many other more quantitative and statistical studies will continue to be done in the future. I find it disgraceful that people bring so much negativity to change and progression in education. There has been so little change done in the last 30 years it’s a shame. I find this is probably because many people have the same negative ideas and difficulty to accept trying things out. Technologically speaking.

          The idea is not just if people like the tablet but if they actually find themselves more engaged by the content that’s provided maybe they will actually retain the information. If one 9 year old child can spend more time paying attention to long division or say they actually “like” math then that may lead to many more opportunities in time. I surely can’t recall anyone saying they “liked” their math book in 4th grade. That in itself is coming a long way.

          And in regards to taxpayers dollars that are spent on experimental tools to help children learn. Of the billions upon billions of dollars that are spent on frivolous waste by bureaucracy and useless govt. spending, this is hardly money misspent. Also if you look at in a slightly bigger picture, what these kids use the Ipad for they are not spending on other resources such as paperback reading material and other material that needs to be purchased yearly. Hence diminishing the cost of material, especially over time.

          It’s about time some change and advancement is occurring with technology. This is just the beginning. I find it difficult to believe we’re doing harm by it. I guess we’ll see.

  5. I’d like to get data on test scores improving, and overall effectiveness in learning. I too am looking for hard data. Is it possible to look at longitudinal testing data from past classes and compare to this and future classes? This hard data needs to be published….

  6. Doug Phelps says:

    All this energy and expense and what we are left with is how everyone “feels”? It seems like the we are left with the fact that children like using iPads. Wow, earth-shaking!

    This is why education often gets less credibility outside of our field-and deservedly so. iPads have been around long enough for us to consider if they boost learning. We need strong metrics to define out opinions. The current work and the basis of the article seem irresponsible.

    I have introduced iPads in independent schools where students have shown progress based on the use of iPads. Nothing touchy-feely here, just hard data.

  7. Marge Harris says:

    An equally important question would be to ask what apps are being used. It’s WHAT is being used that is the most important. If the content isn’t good, the method of delivery won’t make a difference. I teach high school math, and right now use the iPads (belonging to the students so not all have them) for note-taking and working out and displaying answers to guided practice problems. I love it for the notes which often would get lost in backpacks otherwise. I also love Notability (app) since it has the ability to change background color, good for my students with Irlen Syndrome, and has a graph paper background to use as well.

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