Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - To fulfill the diocesan goal of making sure Catholic school students are learning to use the latest technology, the Education Technology Office has launched an iPad pilot program.
Sister Mary Kansier, M.S., administrative coordinator, explained why iPads were chosen as the next phase of technology used in diocesan schools.
“The computer market is trending toward tablet computers, which are touch-screen devices,” she said. “Knowing that we need to be on the front curve of things, we decided to do this pilot.”
For the 2012-13 school year, the anonymous benefactors who have been generously supporting technology in the diocese’s classrooms for years enabled the diocese to purchase five iPad carts to test in different schools.
“We are extremely grateful to our benefactors,” Sister Mary stated.
The carts recharge, synchronize and store enough iPads to give each student in any given classroom their own unit. In four of the five schools, the iPads were used by different classes. The fifth school kept the iPads in one classroom for students to have daily use throughout the year.
For the current 2013-14 school year, three Lincoln schools had their computer labs completely switched over to iPad labs. This was tested at Sacred Heart, St. Joseph and St. Teresa elementary schools.
Training specialist Shane Whitford assured that the iPads provide the same functionality as a desktop computer, such as word processing, using spreadsheets and creating presentations. But, there are some added benefits.
“There are close to a million apps that can be used,” he said. “It’s definitely more interactive and exciting. Kids just love it.”
Sister Mary agreed that the technology fosters the kind of creativity that encourages a good learning experience.
“When the students are able to create something based on what they have learned, it tends to increase their understanding and those thinking skills that teachers are always going after,” she said. “The iPad is a better device for enabling that kind of creative process.”
Whitford noted that the learning curve is faster on touch-screen devices than it is on desktop computers for both teachers and students. For example, the painstaking process of teaching kindergarteners how to use a mouse with its left- and right-click buttons could be eliminated entirely. Another benefit is the cost savings.
“When you add in the software that’s necessary with the desktop computer, the iPads are actually the same cost, or a little more economical,” Sister Mary revealed.
It’s too early to call the pilot a success, but teachers and students who have been testing the technology are enthusiastic.
“One of the teachers had her class create digital cards for our benefactors that said, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘We’re praying for you.’ We’re very blessed to be able to pilot this technology,” Sister Mary said. The pilot will continue for the 2014-15 academic year in the same schools.
“It’s in flux at this point,” Sister Mary said. “Part of the reason for that is we have a couple of other projects that need to take the forefront, and we have to prioritize resources, from staff to budget.”
One of the main priorities before launching touch-screen technology in more schools is the need for school-wide Wi-Fi. The schools testing the iPad labs received it last fall, but it is an expensive endeavor to make sure all 32 schools in the diocesan system are equipped with the Wi-Fi capability that iPads require.
“We really have to get our infrastructure set up first,” Whitford reasoned. “Everything is so bandwidth-hungry now... You can imagine a school that has 50 devices all connected to the Internet.”
“We might give some more schools an iPad cart,” Sister Mary considered, “[but] getting Wi-Fi in more of our schools is a higher priority.”
She envisions a future when touch screens are a normal part of classroom education at all levels, and computer lab teaching specialists transition to a role of “technology coaches,” helping teachers identify and use apps as part of their curriculum.
Sister Mary also said it might be possible to start a one-to-one tablet program in high schools like Duchesne Academy in Omaha. At Duchesne, each student has her own iPad with all her textbooks and appropriate apps are loaded onto it.
“That isn’t a plan we have in place at the moment,” she admitted, “but it’s a very real possibility.”
Sister Mary said that the more diocesan schools can use the latest technology and all its connectivity, the better it is for students as they learn to be good “digital citizens.”
“It’s going to increase the students’ ability to use that connectivity well, and to make critical decisions about when and how they connect,” she said.
Whitford added, “One of the goals of Catholic Education is formation. In a world full of cell phones and iPads and everything else, this gives us the ability to really help students enter into that online world where they might be collaborating with peers from a Catholic world view.”