Summit’s iPad experiments

School blends digital instruction into the classroom

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published Apr 16, 2014 at 12:01AM

Leo Dolan, a Summit High School junior temporarily encumbered by a foot cast, can pinpoint the moment when the game “2048” took over his school.

The first download, Dolan surmises, was by a friend of his on a lacrosse trip to Boise. Dolan was the third, and when the team loaded up on the bus, it spread, though he notes it was temporarily “quarantined” within the bus.

“But when we got back, it was like a disease, it was just like wildfire,” Dolan said.

The dominance of “2048,” a number-based puzzle game that can be downloaded on a smartphone or tablet, was facilitated by the fact that all Summit students have their own school-issued iPads. Beginning this year, Summit is one of eight schools in the digital conversion pilot, a move by Bend-La Pine Schools to evaluate how the devices can help replace paper-based resources and improve instruction. If everything goes well, every student in the district could eventually be handed a device.

Summit Principal Alice DeWittie said the devices have transformed the school, granting teachers more leeway in how they teach and providing students with more resources while enhancing digital literacy, something she continually emphasized is essential for college and career success.

Dolan isn’t so impressed.

“Overall it’s been a detriment to the school,” he declared, his principal looking on with a skeptical grin. “Kids spend way too much time playing games, cutting off social interactions.”

DeWittie asked Dolan who would be in charge of keeping kids on task at college, where they will have similar freedom to use tablets and computers whenever they want. Swinging on his crutches, Dolan said, “I see that.”

DeWittie said students and teachers overwhelmingly seem to be embracing the devices, but, even so, “Some kids are going to slack no matter what.” DeWittie characterized this year as one of experimentation, a time for teachers to use the devices to whatever degree they feel comfortable with.

“Some people have really taken off with it,” DeWittie said, noting the math department in particular had found ways to integrate iPads into instruction.

In Brandon Thompson’s geometry class, Thompson frequently projects the work his students are doing on their iPads to a screen at the front of the class. On Monday, the class was trying to use the properties of right triangles to figure out where a point fell on the XY plane. After having her screen beamed to the front of the class, one student highlighted the steps she had taken in bright yellow as she explained why she used the Pythagorean theorem.

Next door in an advanced algebra II class, Patricia Muns, a junior, said her iPad helps her to visualize math concepts, as the device offers charts and graphs that can be easily manipulated.

“I’d also say class wasn’t as reflective last year,” Muns said. “It was more of the teacher standing up front and just talking.”

Muns’ teacher, Matt Johnson, said that in addition to helping with engagement, there’s a more practical advantage to having iPads.

“Nothing gets lost,” he said. “We have a digital record of all their thinking. Unless they had a very, very well-organized spiral before, this is better. Also, instead of collecting 30 papers, I can look at everyone’s answers side by side on one screen.”

DeWittie said the school’s beefed up digital infrastructure is one of the biggest changes since last year, though she admitted, “it’s not the sexiest thing to talk about.” Teachers can use Google Docs or other content management systems to receive papers, pass out assignments and even provide students a digital space to collaborate and evaluate one another’s work.

“We can let students comment online on someone’s essay, and then you can even comment on the comment,” DeWittie said. “It’s really changing how students can work together.”

Beyond changing how teachers organize class materials, Summit has used iPads to alter the entire rhythm of the school day. A few teachers at the school have begun using a “blended learning” approach, which has students divide their time between traditional class time and online-based instruction. For some classes, students are divided into two cohorts, with each group coming in every other day. When students aren’t in class, they can go to the school commons or to the flex room, a space with tables and couches.

DeWittie said this model allows for more individualized attention when students are in class, as the cohort model lets class sizes shrink from the 30s to the teens. She also noted the model better resembles college and gives students the chance to learn how to self-manage their time.

Sammi Ewing, a junior, said she “loves” the new approach in her history class.

“I actually stopped procrastinating,” she said. “You can go home and do your work, but when you are in class, you have face-to-face time with the teacher. The schedule gives us a break; we’re not just getting stuff hammered into our heads.”

DeWittie said she has no problem if students use an off period at school to relax, saying many of her students are pushed too hard by their schedules. Managing what to do at school and what to do at home is part of the learning process, DeWittie said. Pushing instruction out of the classroom also benefits student athletes, who, DeWittie noted, travel the state to compete and are often away from school. With lessons and even recorded teacher lectures online, students are able to use their iPads to keep up on classes while away.

Next year, Summit plans to offer more blended options, as the school begins formalizing its approach to the iPads following this year of experimentation.

“We didn’t set parameters from above this year,” DeWittie said. “If a teacher was very involved in one area, they could lead a session. It’s very self-perpetuating. But we’re now having conversations about where we want to focus for the future.”

Not all of the conversations begin with teachers. After running into a student in the hallway who was using his iPad to learn how to play a Bright Eyes song on his guitar, DeWittie told the genesis story of an iPad-based music class Summit hopes to offer next year.

“I heard what sounded like a little garage band in the hallway,” DeWittie said. “It turned out to be students using their iPads. One had downloaded a keyboard and there were other things. And I said to them, ‘Is this something we should teach?’”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com