iPads and Homeschooling

Alberta Education released a reported this year entitled ” iPad: what are we learning?” It is a summary of the provincial data gathering day on October 3, 2011. Major stakeholders using iPads were invited to contribute. The Phoenix Foundation was not a part of this process despite being the first school in Calgary to adopt iPad usage in their classrooms. This upset me a little, so this article is a summary of what we learnt about using the iPads in education. We hope you will find it interesting and helpful.

First, you should know that Phoenix is a private, not-for profit publicly accredited Alberta school that specializes in home-based education options for Families. We serve almost two hundred students. Our home-base students occasionally sit in classrooms but mostly their learning takes place outside this traditional setting. Home-based students:

Learn from their parents. Parents are the primary educator. This is not to say that they don’t take classes or participate in a broad range of activities.
Learn at home, in the community or online. They use a broad range of resources, activities and methods to achieve outcomes.
Are often library users.
May or may not use technology. Most of our families have access to Internet, computers and email. Only 1% does not.
Are preschool age to grade 12.
Are student- focused. Because home-based education is tailed to students, it allows then to easily follow passions and explore topics in depth.

Slowly Alberta is shifting away from the industrial education model to a learner – centered, inquiry-based design, something that home education has done for many years. It’s aim is to improve and enhance the learning experience for all students.

Why We Adopted It!

“This was technology we could get our heads and hands around! It was new, exciting and solved many problems for us in a small school. I’ve loved it from the start!” says, Diana Stinn. In fact, the Phoenix Founders were in line May 28, the day the iPad came to Canada to purchase this amazing device. There were many reasons we became early adopters of this technology but are the primary reasons were:

Ease of use for both students and teachers
Cost effective
Way of the future – cool technology
Flexible device that everyone could use
Portable device that didn’t have to take up space in our classrooms
Easy to keep up to date
So many apps to choose from
A device with many uses from word processing videos, games, books and so on.

The top three uses that other educators liked about this device is its ability to support students with unique learning needs, to meet the needs of every student every day in keeping with universal design and finally to increase student engagement.

Improving engagement

Absolutely there was a buzz about the iPad but even if that excitement was to die down ( in other words, even if the shine rubbed off) we figured the touch interface was still far easier to use than a regular computer.

We found the technology was so naturally engaging that we saw small babies playing with the iPad all the way up to our eldest board member who was 94 years old. Indeed, it offered something for everyone!

The iPad’s intuitive functionality empowered everyone who used it. After all it mimics the significant characteristics of play – it’s voluntary, internally motivating and captures the imagination. These traits tend to lead to increased engagement. (The rest of the world calls that addictive!) I have heard some educators complain and worry about the fact that the iPad encourages too much play factor. But frankly, I believe learning should be easy, enjoyable and a lifelong pursuit. In other words, addictive!

Training Ourselves

To ensure that our staff understood how the devices worked, purchased one for every staff member and allow them to use it for the year. The iPad technology was welcomed rather than resisted by most of our stuff. Interestingly enough, at the end of the year there were two iPads that came back to us in their original boxes virtually untouched. These are the same staff members who currently have challenges using Outlook and other word processing programs that have been around for almost 20 years. I do not believe this resistance had to do with age but rather attitude towards technology of any sort.

So What did We Learn?

The iPads did several things one of which was to decrease frustration for students. For example, students who needed a larger font size to read could increase it simply by spreading their fingers apart. We learned how to use Proloquo2go and taught that to other school boards and districts. For many students it leveled the playing field and meant that they could participate in activities equally well.

Portability

It also let us have portable devices that we could take from classroom to classroom, outside if need be and other nontraditional tech places such as under tables or on field trips. This is important because our old location was so small that even having a small bank of computers in each room to took up a significant amount of space.

Challenges

One of the challenges was trying to clean and sync devices. We purchased the large charging cart but each device still had to be synced individually. This was very time-consuming. With the development of the iCloud, this has since changed and updating the devices is much easier. In fact, one of our students is responsible for keeping the iPad clean, sunk and up to date.

While I appreciate many schools are concerned about the privacy issues around the iPads, ours was more concerned about the physical security. Over the last two years of using the iPad we have had two devices stolen from centre. Teachers have to sign out the iPad for their class use and then at the end of the period, return them to the office and sign them back in.

Over the years we have used a wide variety of applications. Our teachers didn’t always know how to use them but together the students and teachers figured it out, fostering a participatory learning culture.

The report notes that the iPad are part of Apples line of highly personalized products, however since we came from PC based environment, our tech and many people complained that the iPads were not a very personalized device. You couldn’t get in and change the settings. This is exactly what we liked about the Apple products – people can’t go in and make significant changes to the way the device operates. And if students should uploaded a customized home page picture or changed basic settings we could go back in and sync them back to factory settings with easy – no need for a total rebuild.

The report further comments about the “low-level” of apps and warned that students may not be academically challenged but simply entertained. Again we have been totally blown away by the amazing apps that exist from GarageBand which allows students to compose and create their own music to Sketchbook Pro that allows students to create detailed graphic images and so on. The apps are easy to use but allow for sophisticated student projects and outcomes.

Perhaps part of the problem inherent in this concern is the apps that teachers are picking and that they pick simplistic apps that they know how to use because the more challenging ones like GarageBand take time to learn and master. This speaks more to the challenge of the teacher – needing to be in control of everything and be the disseminator of knowledge rather than a co-learner and participant in the process.

Why the IPad?

Well, in short they are a pen and paper, a paintbrush, a camera, a telephone, a book, a video, access to the Internet and to world to the window. So the question really is . . . Why not the iPad?

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