SHREWSBURY, Mass. - In Laura Ryan's sixth grade class Tuesday morning at Sherwood Middle School, students pondered how seasons are affected by the Earth rotating on its axis. Answers weren't found in textbooks or laptop computers. Students didn't go to the library or a computer lab. Instead, a fingers tapped and swiped against the glass screens of iPads.
About 1,000 of the computer tablets are now in the hands of Sherwood Middle School students, as the tablet program is in its first-full year of operation.
The school committee finalized the fee structure for using the devices in June, greenlighting school-wide implementation starting in September. Every student and faculty members are able to use iPads in the school.
Student Nandara Venkatesan said using the iPad has been "a good experience."
Using the iPad was a little hard at first, but got much easier after a couple of days, and now she said it allows her to "learn more."
Student Dave Ma said the iPad helps him get organized, and is easier to carry than "thousands of binders."
"It's a great tool," he said.
That the iPad is a tool--one of many--is a fact that school administrators like to stress.
Students had previously relied on the school's computer lab, and had access to about 36 laptops, a number that Sherwood Principal Jane Lizotte said was "insufficient" for the 1,000-strong student body.
Lizotte said the iPads are cheaper than laptop computers, have an easier interface, and the apps are closely vetted by Apple to be age-appropriate.
In a pilot program last year, 53 Sherwood sixth graders were given iPads to use at school and home for academic purposes. That program gave school officials a hint as to what would work in a school-wide program, and what would need tweaking.
"We went into this with open minds," said Special Education Teacher Erica McMahon, whose team were part of the pilot program. "We weren't sold on it right away, but we knew there were great possibilities."
Assistant Principal Michelle M. Melick said the transition from the pilot to a school-wide program was smoother than anticipated.
Since the start of the school year, there have been a few dropped iPads, and about seven broken screens have been reported. In such a case, a loaner iPad is made available, and students and parents are spoken with regarding the accident.
"Seven out of 1,000 is pretty good," Melick said.
From an educational point of view, McMahon said the iPads have been helpful for special ed students who may face a variety of challenges. For example, typing on the iPads screen can help a student whose handwriting isn't legible.
McMahon also noted that students can access a greater variety of online resources, and discover answers for themselves.
In teacher Sarah Matthews' class, students were creating online math tutorials for each other using an iPad app. After a tutorial using images, moving graphics, and voice-over narration is completed, Matthews is able to link the tutorial on a wiki page she created, allowing students to access answers on their own.
"I think it's really helpful," said student Hyden Campos, speaking about those student-to-student online video tutorials
"Sometimes, kids are the best teachers for other kids," Matthews said.
This kind of collaboration helps tighten bonds between students, but is not a substitute for for person-to-person contact, said Melick. "The iPad can't replace that."