By Tim Ebner
NEW CARROLLTON, Md. (January 18, 2012)—Instead of solving math problems with pencil and paper in Christina Jerome's 8th grade classroom at Charles Carroll Middle School, students add and subtract with a simple swipe of a finger.
They're using iPads to take notes, study for quizzes and review homework, part of a federally-funded experiment that county leaders say should serve as a national model for integration of new technology into the classroom.
"I can't stand paper," said Jerome, who uses the tablet computers to get instant feedback on student performance in class. "If I have the students use the eClicker app on the iPad, I can immediately see how many students got the right answer and which students need help."
Using a $1.3 million stimulus grant funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Prince George's County is providing iPads to 3,000 students at four middle schools where a majority of pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, known as Title I schools.
The program is aimed at preparing students for a digital future, said Meri Robinson, technology specialist for the county's Title I office.
"The tools and apps that the iPad affords give students a unique advantage. It helps to support and prepare them for the 21st century and a global society," she said.
Across the state, a variety of devices are being used in school districts, including a pilot program in Harford County that is testing popular tablets and e-readers, like the iPad, Kindle and Nook.
"Districts are considering many factors such as the availability of content for the device, the amount of professional development and training required for instructional use, and if the device will enhance instruction and personalize learning," said Angela Swainson, instructional technology specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education.
One of the main obstacles to providing more students with tablet computers is funding, Swainson said. While the state has some funding for school technology programs, there's considerable need for federal support.
The federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program has traditionally provided funding for technology in Maryland schools. But money from that program will not be available until Congress approves funds in the long awaited reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In Prince George's County, the iPad program trained teachers this summer to use the device and to apply it to their curriculum. Teachers also learned how to monitor student activity on iPads before the devices were introduced to classrooms in August.
"The students see the advantages, and they use it responsibly for the most part," Jerome said. "In my class, you can use the iPad as little or as much as you'd like, but most prefer it," she said.
Each teacher has access to administrative controls that allows them to watch students and track their activity. Jerome conducts weekly checks of students' iPads and will take away the device if it's being misused.
At the beginning of the school year, students signed a contact with a list of rules making them liable for damage to their iPad. Students are not allowed to take them home at the end of each day.
Janise Mead, who teaches a 6th grade language arts class at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale, said she was surprised that the county would issue middle schoolers expensive tablets.
"I thought it was a little odd to give students $500 iPads, but I soon realized that they already know how to use smartphones similar to the technology," she said.
By developing her reading curriculum around the device, Mead said she has been able to personalize learning to each individual student.
"Often, they are able to find apps and tools on their own," she said.
Heidy Canales, one of Mead's 6th graders, said the iPad has been useful for taking notes, reading stories and looking up definitions during reading assignments.
"It's a way to be creative. I can add pictures to my notes, change the text or organize them in the ways I want," she said.
When the bell sounds at William Wirt, the iPads travel with students. Canales and her peers load them into a mobile charging station, which is wheeled between math, science and reading courses.
While county officials say the program has been successful so far, it still faces some challenges, Robinson said.
The schools are responsible for paying to fix damaged iPads and for replacing worn-out earbuds and covers for the devices. County officials want to put iPads in the hands of students at more schools, but it's unclear where funding will come from.
"Because federal funds are not renewed each year, it's a wait and see approach, but there is a plan in place if we receive additional funding support," Robinson said.
Next year, the program plans to move ahead with full iPad integration in the four Title I middle schools - Charles Carroll, William Wirt, Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi and Nicholas Orem Middle School in Hyattsville. By next year, the county will select a textbook partner in order to offer digital copies of textbooks on the iPad.
The county school system is also exploring the possibility of supplying iPads to feeder elementary schools, so that students are prepared when they enter one of the four middle schools.
While funding is a major part of the equation for programs like the Prince George's county iPad program, teachers, like Jerome said they constantly look for free technology resources to use in schools.
Jerome makes use of free Google software, which allows her to email and share documents with her students.
"We use the technology, but in the end it's still about good teachers. Our goal is to meet students where they are comfortable and create a learning environment," she said.