Tools of the future: Berkeley County schools using iPads in classroom lessons, as study aids

Marissa Echenique, a social studies and science teacher at Whitesville Elementary School, helps students access applications on the iPad during one of her fifth-grade classes. Whitesville is one of four schools in the Berkeley County School District that

Students in several Berkeley County elementary and high schools have access to one of the hottest gadgets on the high-tech market: the Apple iPad.

It's part of a digital pilot program made possible through a partnership between the school district and the state Department of Education. The program will explore the potential of wireless technology and digital textbooks to enhance teaching and learning, according to officials.

Students now are using the touchscreen devices, which weigh 1.5 pounds and are smaller than most magazines, to conveniently access free Internet resources. Students also can use numerous applications installed on the tablet computers to interact during lessons or to use as study tools.

At Whitesville Elementary School in Moncks Corner, Principal Julia Taylor said she was especially thrilled, working at a more than 50-year-old campus, to have some of the students get the chance to use cutting-edge technology.

"So many times we're trying to prepare children for the future, but we're using the tools of the past," Taylor said. "IPads haven't been out a year, and we already have them in the classroom showing them (the students) the tools of the future."

Fifth-graders at the school have been using the iPads in Marissa Echenique's social studies and sciences classes since October, and she said she mainly uses them to give students an engaging way to follow along in class.

Echenique said that with the iPads the children can quickly pull up pictures, videos and websites on Safari, the iPad's Internet browser, or use the Google Earth app to nearly instantaneously pinpoint locations on a globe during geography lessons.

The students even have a virtual chalkboard app called Chalk that they use for practice quizzes. When asked questions out loud, the students can write on the iPad with a single finger and hold up their answers.

"I definitely think it keeps them engaged," Echenique said. "Their attention is 100 percent focused on what they're doing, and they want to learn more. There's still a few that kind of get distracted and kind of want to play, but they've done a really nice job with it."

The students have used the iPads at least once or twice a week since they got them, and many even prefer playing on the devices rather than going out to recess. Students say they have adjusted to the iPad almost naturally.

At first, 11-year-old Monae Ravenell said it took a little getting used to because there wasn't a physical keyboard on the iPad, but after a while, it became pretty easy.

"It helps a lot," Monae said about when it comes to studying. "It's really fun, and it grabs my attention a lot."

Around the district, iPads are being used for various subjects. For example, other grade-school students use the Pizza Math app for studying fractions, Sudoku for logic or Virtuoso for music class, while high schoolers use the iPads for research and reference apps.

"I just think it matches their world," Echenique said. "Everything that they do is so instant and so quick, and that's just what they're used to."

Currently, there are 30 iPads in Hanahan High School's junior social studies class that have been funded by the state and 25 each in the fifth-grade classes at three Title I schools -- Cross Elementary, College Park Elementary and Whitesville Elementary -- which have been funded by federal stimulus money. The district also has put iPads in the fifth-grade class at Daniel Island School, purchased with district computer repair rebate funds.

The pilot program was launched in conjunction with the state Education Oversight Committee, and the Berkeley School District is one of two districts statewide that was invited to take part in it. The district also began piloting netbooks, or ultra-portable laptops, in classrooms in January with 30 in use in a Hanahan High School English class.

District leaders say they hope to weigh the advantages of both technologies to better understand their instructional applications as well as to see if student scores in the participating schools differ from those without the digital pilot program.

For now, the iPads are used only at the schools, but Diane Driggers, executive director of technology for the district, said she hopes that it will change down the road.

"Our goal would be to have an iPad for each student in class and to take home," Driggers said. "There are other districts that have launched this one-to-one initiative, and we are looking for funding opportunities to move in that direction as well."