Forget about Angry Birds. What the Academy of the Holy Names is doing on iPads might just be the way of the future in education.
The private Catholic school recently purchased iPads for all students in grades 3 through 12. But these iPads aren't just for fun and games.
Today's students learn differently than previous generations, said Bridgid Fishman, elementary school principal at the academy. Raised on technology, "their brains are different than ours, period. If you're going to teach them, you have to reach them," she said.
Last year, the school piloted the use of technology by allowing students to use their own portable devices, from laptops to smartphones, in the classroom.
"We saw (the students') assessments go up consistently . . . their level of engagement went up," Fishman said.
The preK-12 school on Bayshore Boulevard decided to move forward with fundraising goals to purchase the iPads for its middle and high school students. They received a $210,000 donation from the Bailey Family Foundation, enabling them to get the iPads a year sooner than they anticipated.
Two anonymous donors paid for additional iPads for all third- and fourth-graders.
Grades 5 through 12 get to take their iPads home; third- and fourth-graders use them only in the classrooms.
The school has spent $500,000 on the project, including improvements to its Internet infrastructure for wireless use and the hiring of two technology specialists.
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Allie Reichert, a 16-year-old junior from Safety Harbor, loves her new iPad.
"We're best friends. I use it for all my classes," she said.
Reichert takes all her notes on the iPad, has all her textbooks in PDF format on it, and can watch videos of her math teacher explaining problems or upload homework. Even her planner is on the iPad.
"I love my lighter backpack," she said.
The students use an application called Notability, which replaces the need for notebooks and binders. Kids use a stylus or the touchscreen keyboard to take notes. They can insert pictures, graphics and voice recordings, and create multiple documents and folders. The application stores information online so both teachers and students can access it at home and in the classroom.
Teachers and students can share files through online sites like Dropbox and iCloud. Teachers use other interactive software applications and websites, which are constantly evaluated. The list of apps is endless, from math and reading games for younger grades to a science app with an interactive periodic table.
"The bells and whistles are cool," said Fishman, as she enthusiastically demonstrates how students can take a picture of a teacher's board and insert it into their notes.
But, she says it's just one tool that teachers can use to engage students, and not meant to replace good old-fashioned paper and pens.
"We have to leverage all the tools to the best of our abilities," she said.
From clicking on a word to quickly get its definition to doing research through online encyclopedias, "getting answers in an instant is powerful," said Erica Oakhill, one of the two new technology specialists at the school. "It's a great way to enhance (students') learning and get them prepared for the future."
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At the beginning of the school year, students went through an orientation on the care and use of their tablets, as well as Internet safety. The iPads are under warranty, so if any of those delicate touch screens get broken, they get replaced up to two times. After that, the parents are responsible for the replacement.
Parents also were responsible for purchasing their own protective covers, which allowed kids to personalize their tablets.
Other schools that are looking at the benefits of iPads in the classrooms include Tampa Preparatory School and Jesuit High School. Students at the county's two single-gender public middle schools — Franklin Boys and Ferrell Girls preparatory academies — also use iPads. Academy of the Holy Names, is coeducational for through grade 8; their high school is all-girls.
At Tampa Prep, teachers are using iPads for multimedia presentations as part of their teaching tools, and are researching other applications.
Jesuit has approximately 120 iPads that students will soon be using in a variety of classes. Students will try out various programs like Evernote, similar to Notability, and Rosetta Stone for foreign language classes.
"The biggest advantage of using the iPad in the classroom is the ability to really engage the students and create more of a collaborative environment in class," said Mark Alsdorf, Jesuit's instructional technology coordinator.
Another advantage of using the iPad in the classroom is the ability to tailor lessons to each child's learning pace and abilities, said Fishman, at Holy Names.
Certain apps allow kids to move through material at their own pace and explore new material as they progress.
"I actually worried, 'Will it hinder my learning if I'm not actually writing?' " Reichert said. "But I'm still writing, just on the iPad."
Reichert says she uses her textbooks at home when studying, but that the iPad makes it easy for her to message teachers, share notes with friends and take notes faster. "I feel more connected."
Elizabeth Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.