Digital revolution is in full swing in Burlington classrooms

iPads in the classroom
Photo by Christine Peterson

Pine Glen Elementary School in Burlington was built in the 1970s and looks its age. It’s a low-slung glass, steel and brick building set in a wooded part of town, and it resembles many grade schools elsewhere in the country.

But inside those walls, the digital revolution is in full swing. Pine Glen students in grades four and five and those in one first-grade class are all assigned their own iPads — and that has meant a sea change in how teachers teach and how students learn and express themselves.

Students in three other first-grade classes — at Francis Wyman, Fox Hill and Memorial Elementary — are also assigned their own iPads, as are all of Burlington’s middle and high school students. Eventually, the district hopes to make iPads or similar devices available to all students.

“We are using the resources students are going to use when they leave school,” explained Assistant Superintendent Patrick Larkin. “When they go into workplaces in the future, they aren’t going to be handed a three-ring binder.”

Given that Burlington is situated along the Route 128 high-tech corridor, it comes as no surprise that the town is an early adopter of 1:1 computing devices. Larkin, who introduced iPads to Burlington High School in 2011-2012 when he was the principal there, believes other districts should consider going the same route, given the prevalence of computer technology in higher education and work.

“We’re often playing catch-up in education,” Larkin said. “The longer you wait to use this technology, the harder it will be to catch up. If you are focused on the needs of kids, this is a no-brainer.”

Here are just a few ways that making tablets available to Burlington students has affected them and their teachers:

  • Poster-board projects are often replaced by narrated slideshows or video productions.
  • Worksheets are replaced by applications that use entertaining game formats and give teachers and students instant feedback on students’ progress. Some apps are programmed to recommend strategies.for helping students achieve skills not yet mastered.
  • Instruction can be differentiated more easily because students move at their own pace on iPad applications.
  • Many aging and expensive textbooks are being replaced by digital educational materials and primary sources accessed online.
  • Teachers don’t have to lug home as many papers and projects as they did in the past and grade them by hand; they can view them and comment online.
  • More students can be actively engaged in responding to instruction. For example, in the past, one student might be called on to answer a question while others lost focus. With tablets, all students can be asked to tweet their answers or respond in real time to something they are hearing or watching, such as a film.
  • Student excuses about not having a homework assignment now fall flat in classes where the assignments are posted online. (An added bonus is that it’s harder for a student to get away with telling mom and dad he doesn’t have any homework that day.)

Students are ‘engaged’

First-grade teacher Erin Guanci summed up the way that many Burlington teachers feel.

“I love it,” she said when an MTA Today reporter visited the district in June. “The kids love it, too. They are engaged. There are so many different things they can do. It’s not the end-all and be-all in education, but it’s a really versatile tool.”

Deidre Dowling de Salvador, a reading specialist in Guanci’s classroom, agreed.

“We feel really fortunate to have these resources,” she said. “It’s helped the quality of what we do, and it prepares the children for the world they are living in now.”

As Dowling de Salvador talked, the first-graders were engrossed in their iPads, working individually using headsets or studying together. As in many classrooms, chairs and tables were arranged in small groups, not in forward-facing rows. Guanci was circulating through the room, quietly conferring with individual students.

“Our students need to know 100 sight words,” Dowling de Salvador said. “We found sight word apps, and now just about every kid knows every word. That certainly wasn’t the case in the past.”

It’s too early to tell whether the iPad initiative will raise MCAS scores or other test results in Burlington, and Larkin isn’t concerned.

“We’re not MCAS-driven,” Larkin said. “We’re more interested in preparing students for the workplaces of the future.”

Dan Callahan, instructional technology specialist at Pine Glen, was recruited to Burlington for his creative thinking about integrating technology into instruction. He agreed with Larkin that MCAS-style tests only scratch the surface of assessing what students should know and be able to do.

Callahan said, “There’s no standardized assessment for, ‘Did kids work well together?’ There’s no standardized assessment for, ‘Did they create a really nice looking design?’ There’s no standardized assessment for, ‘Can they take what they know and present it in different ways?’ But these are all things that are very important for them to be able to do.”

New ways to present information

Students in Diana Marcus’ fifth-grade class at Pine Glen had a big day. They were assigned to make small-group presentations about colonies they had studied. They had to use their skills to persuade a panel of adult listeners — including the school principal, who played the part of a Colonial governor — to move to their colony.

The students were free to choose how they wanted their presentations to look. They could have used poster-board (think Mad Men-style storyboards). Or they were free to create digital presentations the way most professionals do today. Not surprisingly, the students gravitated to the latter, though one group made a printed brochure that was designed on the iPad. Paper materials do still exist in the real world, but virtually all are designed on a computer.

One group of fifth-graders made a video for the project while another created a narrated slideshow. Clearly, the students were increasingly familiar with how to produce content on their devices and were not intimidated by the technology.

Marcus is a big fan of having iPads for all of her students, rather than devices shared with other classes via a roving technology cart. “Before, the choices I could give my students about how they could express themselves were limited by my supplies, my time, my energy, the amount of space I had, the amount of mess it was going to make — those kinds of things,” she said. “Now kids can use this new tool, and that opens up so many possibilities for them.”

Freedom to choose iPads — or not — on a given assignment was central to Burlington’s rollout of the 1:1 initiative. “Let’s say I tell my students to show me how to reduce a fraction,” Marcus posited. “Some might put it on paper, but others will use the app Explain Everything, which is a slideshow that can be animated and narrated. It’s a wonderful way for me to assess a student’s understanding. When students are able to show their work as they do it, demonstrating their process, vocabulary and knowledge visually and verbally, I know the depth of their understanding and can identify where there is a problem.”

Similarly, first-graders in Guanci’s class can choose to read a “real” book or read one on the iPad. Sometimes, though, Guanci prefers that they use the iPad so they can track their own growing literacy skills by recording their voices on the device. “They can listen back to what they’ve read and hear their mistakes,” she said. “That helps them improve.”

Missy Skehan, an animated student with a purple bow in her hair, said there are “all kinds of really cool apps” for her iPad.

“There’s a game called Kid’s Journal,” she said. “You write on the iPad and say how you feel and where you are. You can also take a picture of what you’re writing about.”

Instant feedback

Guanci said that for certain skills, such as learning basic math facts, the iPad is much better than a worksheet because feedback is instant and students can move at their own pace. For example, students who already know how to do subtraction can move ahead to a new challenge, while those who need more practice have a variety of engaging apps to use. The students don’t have to wait for Guanci to correct their worksheets at some future time, when they’ve moved on to a different subject.

Teachers in Burlington are given the choice about whether to use the iPads in their own work. They are encouraged to try to find at least one way the devices can make their lives easier.

Todd Whitten, head of the Social Studies Department at Burlington High School, said that most teachers at BHS have embraced the devices, though to varying degrees.

“There was a teacher in my department who initially viewed it as a toy and didn’t think it was worthwhile,” Whitten said. “Then one day I was talking to him about how I was using barcodes and just having kids scan their assignments and he said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not photocopying assignments anymore?’ I told him that, yes, I save up to half an hour not fighting with the machine, clearing jams and trying to get the stapler to work. For him that was, like, ‘Oh, wow. That would be awesome.’ He started doing it and realizes how much it helps him out.”

Whitten is also enthusiastic about use of the iPads for teaching social studies.

“Last year, when the Arab Spring was happening, we were able to engage with the current events as they were unfolding,” he said. “Before, I’d have to bring everyone to the computer lab and fire up the computers. There would always be a couple that didn’t work, so I’d spend my time running around trying to be a tech guy. Now, I can walk in the classroom and say, ‘All right, I want this half of the room to follow this person on Twitter and this half to go onto CNN, and here’s the question I want you to answer in the next 15 minutes.’ They can get online instantaneously and use the time that was saved for a great conversation about real-life events.”

Matt Bolognese, a student in a world history class, ticked off a few other benefits of having the devices. “I find it a lot easier to take notes since I’m a faster typer than I am a writer,” he said. “It’s also a lot easier to download homework.” That day, he was working on a group PowerPoint presentation about religious intolerance. He was searching online for photographs that showed Buddhiston- Muslim violence in Myanmar and was planning to share his research with his partners using Google Docs.


Despite the enthusiasm many teachers share, all acknowledge that transitioning to a 1:1 program comes with challenges.

Student Distraction. Adults and students alike connected to the Internet can be distracted by e-mail, YouTube and social networking sites. Marcus said teachers should expect a “novelty period,” when students are tempted to surf the Web.

“During our novelty period, we had kids looking up, like, 200 pictures of cute kittens,” she said. “We talk a lot about the best use of your time, and most of the time they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It’s up to us as teachers to engage them with good pedagogy. Good pedagogy is good pedagogy with or without devices.”

Benjamin Lally, head of the BHS English Department, agreed that distraction is the biggest concern, but added, “Kids have always been distracted. They’re teenagers. When I was in high school, we passed notes. Teachers need to manage their classrooms, like they always have.”

Whitten said the iPad also changes the dynamic of having the teacher up front, facing students. “You cannot teach in a classroom full of iPads from the front of the room,” he said. “I’ve always been fairly mobile. Now I’m even more mobile in my classroom than I was before.”

Inappropriate sites. Marcus said that installing filtering software is important but not foolproof. Students have to be taught what’s appropriate and what isn’t, and teachers and parents alike need to be vigilant. This issue is not unique to tablets, however, since it is relevant to any computer connected to the Internet. Few would argue that students should never have access to the Internet because of it.

Too much screen time. Some parents are concerned that the iPads will lead to their children spending too much time in front of a screen. The best counter to that is for schools to make sure students continue to participate in a variety of offline activities, including physical education, music, art and engaging in classroom-based discussions. Guanci said that if parents are concerned about their children spending too much time in front of a screen on non-educational activities at home, it’s up to them to set limits, as they would for television watching.

Learning curve for teachers. Learning how to use an iPad to consume content is easy; using it to produce content and learn new teaching strategies takes time and effort. Districts must figure out how to provide teachers with ongoing training and technical support.

Teachers who embrace technology in their own personal lives are more likely to enjoy spending time figuring out how to incorporate the devices into their classrooms. Those who aren’t comfortable with computers are likely to use them a lot less. Eventually, Burlington teachers found that the iPads helped them save time and effort, but there is no doubt that both are required to get the program going.

Managing the devices. Students need training in how to use and protect their iPads. Systems need to be established for making sure the devices are charged and the apps are updated.

In Burlington’s elementary and middle schools, the iPads are assigned to individual students but kept in school. In high school, the students take their iPads home, and parents pay a fee of $39 per year to insure them.

Inevitably, some students forget to charge their iPads. When that happens, finding enough outlets to charge them in an old building can be challenging.

Cost. Cost may be the single biggest barrier for districts that want to adopt a 1:1 initiative. Before Burlington invested in iPads, all of the district’s schools were wired for Wi-Fi. Callahan described this as a necessary expense. “Technology is a utility,” he said. “You can’t say we’re going to have a school with no plumbing. So why can you say we’re going to have a school without Internet access?”

The iPads cost Burlington $193,000 a year for the first three years and will cost the district $235,000 a year when the 1:1 program is fully implemented. Larkin said that some — but not all — of that expense is offset by reduced purchases of textbooks, paper and computers that were formerly used in computer and language labs. Some districts will find the initiative prohibitively expensive unless public or private funds are made available.

Writing on iPads. The iPad keypad is handy for taking notes and doing Internet searches, but is cumbersome for long-form writing. In Burlington, students who don’t like the built-in keypad have the option of getting a case with an external keyboard. Still, many prefer to write on a computer. In low-income districts, schools will still need to make computers available to students who don’t have them at home.

Penmanship. Guanci noted that two parents were concerned that their children would not be taught penmanship. “We still work on handwriting,” Guanci said. She pointed to a container of pencils and then to the iPads and said they are both just “tools.”

“Right now my students are writing stories by hand,” she said. “Next they will type them onto the iPad, then draw illustrations, which they upload. They will then publish their stories online with an app called Book Creator.”

Whitten and Lally agree that tablets are useful tools, but they aren’t magical.

“For each kid to have a tablet is a game changer for research capabilities,” said Lally. “I’m also seeing improvement in my students’ organizational skills. And they help teachers to be more efficient in our feedback and expectations. But I’m not noticing that students are writing any better. The quality of their thinking is still the quality of their thinking.”

As far as Assistant Superintendent Larkin is concerned, whatever challenges exist, districts have to figure out how to overcome them if they want to make sure their students are ready for college or a career when they graduate.

“Our mission is to prepare kids for the real world,” he said. “Kids will be going into jobs that don’t even exist yet. It only makes sense that our jobs are changing as well.”