Teaching With Tech

The digital classroom of the 21st century is here. Is the technology delivering on its promise?

Becki Kennedy was at first hesitant when her son received an iPad in second grade at Abingdon Elementary. “I was worried he’d play Minecraft on it all day like he does at home,” says the Arlington mom, who attended Abingdon herself as a child.

But soon she saw an upside: the tablet allowed her son to work above his grade level in math. He had been bored in kindergarten and first grade because he found the math too easy.

The iPads “are not being used as a babysitter or to watch YouTube videos all day,” Kennedy says. “They’re not replacing his learning; they’re supplementing it.”

The fact that her son was punished last year for an iPad violation hasn’t lessened her enthusiasm. The school suspended his tablet after he tried to download Minecraft illegally from a site written in Chinese, and for two weeks, he had to do all his homework by hand—which he hated. In the end, Kennedy says, the incident taught him a valuable lesson: If you can’t read what’s on a website, you shouldn’t download anything from it.

Love it or hate it, APS’ Digital Learning Initiative will look slightly different at the start of this school year. Per an Arlington School Board decision tied to the FY 2019 budget, second-graders will no longer be issued personal iPads; instead, they will have to share them.

The decision came despite lobbying by some teachers—including Jamestown’s Ortiz—who argued that individual iPads were critical to their instructional plans. “They never let us say what a good educational tool the iPad is,” Ortiz says. “We’ve gotten so accustomed to teaching with them. It’s frustrating.”

But in a school district grappling with an ongoing population boom, there’s only so much money to go around. “APS had to make many tough choices,” assistant superintendent Linda Erdos wrote in an email. Faced with a $16.5 million deficit—which APS attributes largely to student enrollment growth over the past eight years—the school board had to slash spending in certain categories. “There was no way to close the gap without touching the funding for [programs like this],” Erdos said.

Better to cut technology than teachers. APS superintendent Patrick Murphy stresses that technology “can never replace the critical one-to-one relationship between a teacher and students.”

Still, there are those who see magic in the combination. During a visit to Jamestown Elementary this spring, representatives from Google Expeditions enlisted second graders in testing out some new software. Using a selfie stick to hover a device over a blank sheet of paper, students were mesmerized to see Roman chariots racing out of the device in 3-D.

Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso says she’ll never forget the multimedia haiku presentation her daughter Zoe brought home excitedly after receiving an iPad as a second-grader at Abingdon.

“I know people feel that somehow having these devices will make [kids] sit inside and look at a screen,” Rosso says. But that’s not always a bad thing.

As a third-grader, Zoe used her blossoming computer skills to write and submit a petition to Abingdon’s principal requesting longer recess time. Now a rising middle schooler, she is an expert with iMovie, and has picked up some coding skills.

And therein lies one of technology’s greatest perks—its potential to foster a lifelong love of learning.

Lisa Lednicer also interviewed local teachers for our “Lessons Learned” feature in this issue.

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Categories: Education