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Students at El Camino Creek work on presentations with their iPads. A new study, one of the first of its kind, concluded that iPads benefit reading, writing and creative skills. But there's room for improvement in teacher development. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Study tracks how iPads impact learning and teaching in EUSD classrooms

ENCINITAS — Increasingly so, iPads are common in school districts throughout the nation. But studies on the effectiveness of the devices in the classroom — those are rare. 

That’s why a new study from the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center could make a splash in the education community.

The research found that iPads promoted 21st century skills like creative thinking, communication and problem solving for students in EUSD (Encinitas Union School District).

But the study also found there was room for improvements. Notably, it recommended the district dedicate more resources to better train teachers in leading classrooms with iPads.

“We worked with the district to point the way on how they can best integrate technology into what they’re doing,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the University of San Diego Mobile Technology Learning Center.

For the study, researchers conducted four in-depth classroom case studies at EUSD schools throughout last year.

Last fall, the district rolled out iPads for all students in third through sixth grades. Since then, the program has expanded to K-2 students.

The iPads were particularly valuable for research and writing, the study notes. Instead of waiting for classroom computers to become available, students used their iPads to pull up information instantaneously. And continuous online searches developed students’ abilities to find relevant websites.

Also, students who were a part of the study much preferred typing on the iPads to writing by hand, because they could easily reconstruct sections of papers after collaborating with classmates.

In one class, “the teacher facilitated a conversation in which students had to articulate their understanding and then defend or revise it depending on their discussion with the rest of the class,” the study reported. “Such lessons helped students to develop especially strong communication skills, since they were able to have conversations with their teacher and peers about the effects of certain writing styles and word choices.”

When it came time to express what they’d learned, students had the option of presenting via a comic strip, movie or a slideshow.

“There’s a lot of potential for creativity with the iPads,” Himelstein said.

However, the iPads largely didn’t advance math learning, the study found. Rather, classrooms reverted to teacher-centric lessons for math problems due to uncertainty over how to incorporate the devices into the subject.

“Based on our data, teachers and students seem to collectively struggle with math, and stand to benefit considerably from a strong district emphasis on transforming math education,” the study states.

Some of the complaints teachers cited in the report said that they had to use their personal, unpaid time to access professional development in iPad management. Hence, workshops built into the school day are recommended.

“What’s clear from the study is the professional development needs and wants,” Himelstein said.

Also, initial conference-style iPad management training gave too much information to digest at one time. As an antidote, workshops focusing on onsite, hands-on training with peers would develop skills in this area, according to the study.

Further, the study calls for developing an iPad-specific assessment for highlighting teachers’ strengths and weaknesses in areas like classroom management and data generation.

EUSD School Board Trustee Carol Skiljan said her “major takeaway from the study is we’re on the right track.”

As for areas of improvement suggested in the report, Skiljan said the district has taken steps to get better and will continue to do so.

For instance, teachers and students have reported more success with math since the district upgraded to a new app at the beginning of the year.

Himelstein said there are few current studies nationwide assessing what works and doesn’t work when it comes to iPads and learning.

The center is also conducting technology studies in Solana Beach and Coronado. Over time, they’ll compile a database of USD research with other studies to identify and share “best practices.”

The center launched in 2011 with $550,000 in seed money and has since received $3 million from philanthropists Irwin and Joan Jacobs this summer. Himelstein said there’s a growing interest in studying technology across the nation.

“Teachers were given iPads in a lot of cases without a lot of instruction,” he said. “We help them adapt.”

He noted that the center is in talks with EUSD to conduct a follow-up study looking at the results of the professional development recommendations.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook with districts asking us to look at what they’re doing,” Himelstein said.

In total, iPad purchases have cost the district $2.7 million. Funding comes from Proposition P, a $44 million bond that was passed three years ago to pay for facility upgrades and technology throughout the district.