Walking into Dave McKae’s seventh-grade math classroom at Cascade Middle School feels like entering a sci-fi movie — the room is pitch-black except for the bright white glow on every student’s face, generated by their iPad tablets.

Although this scene may look foreign to adults who haven’t been inside a school in years, to students and teachers throughout Bend-La Pine Schools, it’s nothing special.

“It’s just a part of what we do,” Cascade Principal Stephen DuVal said.

In the fall of 2013, select students in eight Bend schools received iPads for use in class and after school. By July 2015, Bend-La Pine Schools completed its transition by giving each student in grades 3-12 an iPad for school use, resulting in 14,070 tablets being distributed districtwide.

Five years later, the tablets are a normal part of school life for students and teachers. Students’ iPad cases are frequently covered in doodles and stickers, just like how teens might have scribbled a Nirvana logo on their binders 25 years prior. The traditional student-made posters promoting school spirit and upcoming events line the walls of Cascade Middle School — but they’re next to posters reminding kids to keep their iPads charged.

“The shininess is gone,” said Skip Offenhauser, who oversees instructional technology for Bend-La Pine Schools.

Teachers and district officials have praised how iPads have been an effective educational tool, providing convenience and flexibility that makes the tablets’ price tag — $294 per device — worth it, they say. But students aren’t as sold, with some complaining about glitches and technical difficulties and many already feeling nostalgic for an analog era.

“I prefer using pen and paper … you’re not on technology all the time.” said Kendra Tennison, a sophomore at Mountain View High School. “I have my phone, and yeah, I’m on it, but being on the iPad 24/7, it’s annoying.”

IPads as a classroom tool

Offenhauser said since the first year of the iPad rollout, teachers have started using them less as a constant gimmick and more as an occasional tool.

“People at that time felt like they had to use it often. Now, it’s balanced out,” he said. “I was here in that first year, and (people said) ‘We really need to use these; what a huge investment. We need to use these all the time,’ and that’s backed off.”

Offenhauser and Scott McDonald, an instructional technology coach for the district, agreed that instead of having teachers designate a certain time of the day for “technology time,” the devices have become seamlessly integrated into classes.

The iPads have helped students learn how to conduct research in the digital age, school officials said. Matt Haney, a fifth-grade teacher at Rosland Elementary, said he uses iPads to show his students how to find legitimate sources online.

“(There’s an) opportunity to be able to search for things and identify the credibility of something, teaching them how to understand what a quality source is, because there’s a lot of things they’re going to have to navigate in terms of information,” he said.

One frequently used app, according to McDonald and Offenhauser, is Notability, where students can use their fingers or a stylus to scribble notes next to worksheets or text. The app can be especially useful in classes such as geometry, where students can create perfect circles and other shapes, which is much harder to do by hand.

Teachers distribute assignments, post materials and receive submitted work via the Google Classroom app. According to McDonald, the app can help also prompt discussions in class. For example, if a social studies teacher posts an open-ended question about the Revolutionary War in Google Classroom, each student would submit an answer, and then teachers could project certain answers on to a screen and have the class respond.

“It’s a way to transcend what a normal classroom discussion could look like, so some of those students that aren’t comfortable speaking can speak,” DuVal said. “It also allows students to examine other students’ thinking.”

McKae said students can also ask him or their classmates questions about assignments to get help on tricky math problems once kids are at home after school, which he said builds better relationships between students.

“They don’t have to wait until the next day or give up their lunch time to get the answer,” he said.

Naturally, when teens are given devices with internet access, parents might be concerned about their kids wasting time on Facebook or Instagram. But Offenhauser said just like on all school-based computers, social media is blocked on the iPads, along with other sites promoting weapons, gambling, sexual content and more. Furthermore, teachers can use the Apple Classroom app (not to be confused with Google Classroom) to supervise every iPad screen in their class and make sure students are on-task. Apple Classroom can also be used to mute every device in the class or even instantly lock them to get students’ attention.

Expensive tools

Of course, maintaining a fleet of more than 14,000 iPads isn’t cheap.

Offenhauser said typically the district’s iPads have a four-year lifespan, after which they’re replaced in phases (the iPads were introduced in three year-long waves). From August 2017 to August 2018, Bend-La Pine Schools spent $1,690,500 on 5,750 new iPads. In that same timespan, the district also spent $427,924 on digital curricula and apps, $173,321 on cases and $25,536 on miscellaneous expenses such as keyboards and charging cords.

According to Offenhauser, the district gets a discount from Apple because it purchases the iPads in bulk and they’re “educational versions,” meaning they have the power of a higher-model iPad Pro without some of the unnecessary bells and whistles. Furthermore, a couple years ago, Apple dropped the cost per iPad from $379 to $294.

While some might balk at the iPads’ price, Offenhauser said he believed the tablets were worth it.

“They are a tool which allows teachers to communicate with students, facilitate collaboration, spark creativity, and promote critical thinking,” he wrote in an email. “Taking all of these attributes into account, I believe this tool is worth the investment.”

Those numbers are only the district-wide costs: each school can also use discretionary funds to purchase extra iPads, apps or other tech items. The various schools’ discretionary expenses totaled $125,451 last year.

Another iPad-related cost is repairs, on which the district spent $80,463 on from August 2017 to August 2018. But in some cases, families pay for mishaps. Bend-La Pine offers iPad insurance for families for $30 per device per year, which covers almost every incident imaginable, including cracked screens, water damage or theft (with a police report). There are only three things not covered: purposeful damage/neglect, losing an iPad, and the tablet’s charging cord and brick. And if the iPad is damaged while not in a case, the district can choose to not cover it.

With the first incident, there’s no deductible, but it jumps $25 with every subsequent incident, up to a $75 maximum deductible.

About 27 percent of district-issued iPads aren’t insured, and repairs would cost a family $150, with complete replacement costing $299. The slightly higher cost of replacing an iPad versus what the district pays for them is because smaller-quantity orders are more expensive, Offenhauser said.

According to Offenhauser, about 6 percent to 7 percent of iPads are broken each year, and students get a “new” refurbished tablet as a replacement.

Students skeptical

Although teachers and administrators are proud of how Bend-La Pine’s five-year iPad rollout has gone, many high school students had mixed reviews, with some saying they simply missed using classic pen and paper to take notes.

“It’s easier to write (with pen and paper) rather than writing on your finger with an iPad screen,” said Elizabeth Hummel, a sophomore at Summit.

“I write faster on paper; it’s just easier to keep up and less confusing,” Issac Foppe, a junior at Mountain View, added.

Teachers and administrators said they don’t force students to use iPads if they prefer paper notes. Classrooms still keep physical textbooks, and McKae said he always makes a few paper copies of assignments in case students would rather not use the screen.

Another complaint from a number of students was the devices’ frequent glitches. Mountain View junior Kameron Baker said his iPad froze frequently, and Summit senior Gretchen Sortor, 17, said she’s had difficulty connecting to her Wi-Fi at home, forcing her to use her personal laptop.

According to Offenhauser, each high school has a tech support staff member who’s available during the school day if a student has technical difficulties with their iPad, and he and Bend-La Pine staff worked over winter break to allow easier connections between the iPads and wifi at students’ homes.

One issue many students brought up was that the iPads would randomly delete their assignments. The issue is so widespread that Sortor said she’s found a method to deal with the tablets’ unpredictability after a major essay was deleted during her sophomore year.

“That was super stressful, so … I’ve learned from then to take screenshots or be careful.”

Offenhauser said this isn’t a new problem, and students have to learn to be more accountable for their work by making multiple copies. Furthermore, all assignments written on popular word processor Google Docs is automatically backed up.

“We’ve had this problem since you and I have been in school: kids lose homework,” he said. “They lose paper homework’ they’re going to lose digital homework. We’re just helping them find skills to get them a little better organized.”

Some students said their teachers weren’t using the iPads effectively, such as Summit ninth-grader Ainsley Sutterfield, who said one of her English teachers uploads assignments online without telling students, once at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night. Fellow ninth-grader Andrea Sanford, at Mountain View, said teachers can “get too strict” with the devices and expect students to automatically know everything about the devices or the apps.

Parents weren’t unanimously in love with the iPads, either.

Tracy Anderman, a mother of a sophomore at Summit and a fifth-grader at High Lakes Elementary, was skeptical of the devices. Although she conceded that the iPads can be a valuable tool in classes, she didn’t think students should start using them at such a young age and expressed concern about the amount of screen time that students faced.

“My sophomore, she hates the iPads,” Anderman said. “She is on it all the time, she has headaches, we’re taking her back to the eye doctor again and this will be the second or third visit.”

But Katie Kessel, a parent of a student at Sky View Middle School, said although she does believe in limiting recreational screen time at home, “technology is the direction education is headed.”

Not all student feedback was negative, however — many praised how the tablets were much lighter in their backpacks than bulky textbooks. Mountain View junior Trenton Piper said he likes using the iPad because the online connectivity makes it easy to create group presentations, and Sutterfield said she liked how the devices provide “everything at your fingertips” for research.

Regardless of parents’ or students’ negative feedback on the devices, Offenhauser said one major positive aspect of the iPads is that they help maintain equity in the district, as every school has the same technology, regardless of the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status.

“We can say, without a doubt, that we’ve provided a level playing field at all of our schools for all of our kids grades 3-12,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to Cascade or Realms or Pilot Butte — when you walk into all of those schools, you know you’re going to get the same opportunities.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com