Are iPads in school good for kids? Charleston Teacher Alliance expresses concern as grant increases use of tablets

Destini Labarca (left) and Faydra Williams work together using one iPad to increase their reading level at Goodwin Elementary School, while classmate Jayden Lacavera takes a reading quiz on his iPad.

Jayden Lacavera knows exactly how many books he’s read in his second-grade class — down to the word.

The 8-year-old explained on a recent Thursday morning about how he’s read 42 books containing 24,128 words. As a student who’s working to improve his reading, Lacavera spent the morning in Shannon Feit’s class practicing his literacy skills by reading “Henry and Mudge in Puddle Trouble” three times before taking a quiz on an iPad.

“It tells me what I read on my level or not,” the Goodwin Elementary School student said of taking digital quizzes.

While the use of iPads and other tablets is becoming a staple in American classrooms — and some educators see it as a game-changer for improving student achievement — the Charleston Teacher Alliance is pushing back against the Charleston County School District’s increasing use of tablets. The group counters that some studies claim too much screen time for children can be detrimental and that there’s little evidence the devices increase learning.

Charleston County schools began experimenting with tablets about four years ago. Then in 2012, the district was awarded a four-year $19.4 million federal grant under the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative aimed at improving student achievement.

The grant funds have gone to purchase iPads for all students at 19 high-needs schools, including Goodwin, as well as training to help teachers use the devices to enhance student learning.

Erin Abner, who co-teaches with Feit, said her school has found the technology helps students to master their lessons.

“It gives them a way to maximize their growth and their goals,” Abner said.

But as the school district continues to ramp up its use of tablets in all 84 of its schools, the alliance has asked for a more tempered approach after 48 percent of 737 teachers polled last year said they didn’t think providing every student with an iPad was a good use of public funds.

Jody Stallings, director of the alliance, is asking for the district to give teachers a choice about whether to use tablets as part of their daily classroom assignments. Stallings, who is an English teacher at Moultrie Middle School, would also like parents to be given an option to choose a more traditional classroom setting.

“If you are a teacher or parent uncomfortable with that method, you should have an option of doing it a different way,” he said.

Kristen Brittingham, director of the school district’s Department of Personalized Learning, said the technology helps students get deeper into what they’re learning through individualized lessons. Educators describe the use of tablets as “personalized learning,” saying they allow teachers flexibility in what they teach and how they teach it depending on their students’ needs.

But students aren’t glued to the iPads all day long. Lacavera’s teachers, Feit and Abner, who are also personalized learning coaches at Goodwin, said how much they use the iPads varies by student and what they’re learning on any given day.

“There are some days they may not use it at all,” Feit said. “Some students use it more because they prefer it.”

The second-grade teachers said they’re careful to give their students a choice about using the devices. Lacavera, for example, used his iPad while some students read books and others worked on a project to build a model of a pueblo dwelling.

But Moultrie Middle School teacher Jamie Thomas, who is among the members of the alliance calling for a cautious approach, said research, at best, is mixed on whether iPads really improve student achievement. A recent study evaluating the performance of some Charleston County students using iPads showed gains in reading and math, but those results were similar to students who didn’t use them.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also noted in a study that while schools using a personalized learning approach through tablets saw improvements, the results couldn’t be directly attributed to those practices.

Thomas is also worried about some research that has warned against too much screen time for children, linking overuse of mobile devices to altered brain development, increased anxiety and depression, and Internet addiction. Those concerns are ones that Thomas thinks the district should disclose.

“Parents should have choices because we don’t know if (the technology) will end up helping or hurting our students,” the social studies teacher said.

Brittingham acknowledges there are some studies warning against too much screen time but that those are mostly for really young children under the age of 2. And other studies, she said, show that students who receive differentiated instruction — or different lessons based on their skills — do better.

The district will continue to refine its policies to address the teacher alliance’s concerns as it increases its use of technology in classrooms, Brittingham said.

“They bring a lot of challenging questions that we do need to address,” she said. “As we scale up, those questions will be answered.”

Despite the concerns, Brittingham believes wholeheartedly that incorporating technology in classrooms is nothing but beneficial when it’s done right.

Tablets, Brittingham said, can allow students to learn at their own pace with different assignments, such as alternate lists of spelling words or math problems, depending on how they’re doing.

Teachers can also use education applications for interactive assignments. And they create videos for their students to access at home.

“It allows us to do things we’ve never been able to do before,” Brittingham said, adding the devices are “just a tool.”

And the benefits of using tablets, Abner said, go beyond just enhancing academics. Giving students a chance to learn how to use technology — particularly those whose families may not be able to afford a device — will help them develop real-world skills and “digital citizenship,” Abner said, which will help prepare them for college or careers.

“We would be doing a disservice to our students if they weren’t acclimated to technology,” she said. “We’re teaching them how it use it purposefully.”

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.