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Some Educators Question Whether iPads are the Solution to Everything

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Fred Dufour / AFP/Getty Images

The iPad is becoming one of the most popular purchases in the world of educational technology.

Schools are using the tablets to teach the principles of physics, get students excited about spelling, and help students collaborate on class projects. Now some schools plan to use iPads to administer state tests which soon will be given entirely online.

Finding uses for iPads in classrooms is going smoothly. But the test-taking plan? Not so much.

The first problem: Some of the more than 2 million iPads in schools nationwide will not be compatible with the new online tests. That means schools may need to find alternatives, potentially spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on replacement technology. But some technology experts say that even if iPads work for the new online tests, schools should think twice about using them for the assessments.

The Bandwagon

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Schools may have been too quick to to jump onto the iPad bandwagon.

“We do hear stories about school districts or schools that say, ‘Hey, we just got a grant or we just found out we got extra money we’re just going to go out and buy a bunch of stuff... and the iPad because we really like it.’ And then the next question is ‘What are we going to do with it?” says Doug Levin, head of the national association of state edtech directors.

“It’s a terrifying story,” he says. “And I hear it unfortunately a little bit too often.”

Technology moves quickly: Two years ago, when work on the new tests began, there was no iPad. Many schools lack experienced staff to guide long-term technology purchase plans. And authoritative information on which new devices and programs will actually help teachers teach can be scare.

The next couple years are going to be a painful time, Levin says.

“We are going to make some mistakes but ultimately we are going to end up keeping going,” he says.

Dollars at Stake

Nationally, schools spend billions on technology each year. And that figure is likely to rise, both nationally and in Ohio as schools are expected to spend more on technology, as much to prepare students for college and careers that rely heavily on technology as to give students state tests.

Right now, Ohio schools spend around $100 per student on technology devices, says Roger Minier, executive director of the Northwest Ohio Ed Tech Agency. NWOET is a nonprofit group that helps schools use technology effectively. Minier’s estimate is based on survey data.

In the coming years, schools can expect to spend up to $200 per student. That’s could add up to as much as $350 million a year just in Ohio.

About 50-60 percent of Ohio schools have purchased iPads, Minier says. But relatively few schools -- perhaps 10-15 percent of Ohio high schools -- bought iPads with the idea that they would be used mostly for testing.

What’s Coming

Starting in 2014-15, schools in Ohio and dozens of other states will begin giving standardized tests in English, math and other subjects online, rather than with  paper and Number-2 pencils.. The new tests will be based on the Common Core, a new, tougher set of expectations about what students should know and be able to do.

The new tests will be used for all kinds of purposes: To evaluate teacher performance and, for some teachers, determine pay. To decide which schools must be shut down and which will get extra money for good performance. And, of course, to help teachers tell how much their students are learning.

The group developing the new online tests Ohio and other states will use  -- PARCC -- has said that schools can use full-size iPad 2s with the iOS6.x operating system installed to test students. iPads with older operating systems won’t work.

PARCC has said the new tests must be given on devices that have at least 9 1/2 -inch screens. That means the newiPad mini -- which is starting to become popular among some schools because of its lower price -- is out because its screen is only 7 1/2 inches.

It’s not yet clear whether schools will need to buy extra accessories -- like keyboards -- in order to give the tests.  PARCC expects to release a decision on that in the coming months. The final word on what technology will work with the new tests is expected next fall.

But even if PARCC says schools can give state tests on iPads, some educators say they shouldn’t.

What Works

Roger Minier, the executive director of the NWOET Ed Tech Agency, has a problem with using iPads for test-taking, particularly for the new Common Core tests which will emphasize longer written responses over multiple-choice questions.

“The problem with iPads relates mostly to word processing,” he says. “Touch screen technology just does not work well when it comes to writing.”

Minier says for the new tests, schools should be using devices on which typing and editing is easy. So for now, he says, laptops are better choices than iPads or other tablets for test-taking.

“If you're buying a device specifically for the test, it's probably not a good idea [to buy an iPad],” he says. “If you're buying a device for learning, well, that’s another issue.”

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