Tower School's iPad Program
By ensuring that every student in grades 3–8 is equipped with an iPad, Tower is blazing new trails in educational technology. But it’s not about gadgets—it’s about real learning, in a brand new format.
A tablet computer can be graph paper or notebook paper, an interactive map or a set of flashcards. You can write on it, type on it, or record a video. You can record your own voice—and then translate that recording into text. You can turn pages on a book or strum strings on a guitar. They are durable and lightweight. At times they seem almost magical.
In addition to their value as a source of information and entertainment, tablet computers have the potential to become a truly transformative educational tool. Their potential lies not only in their chameleon-like functionality, but in their power to change how students learn and how teachers teach. With the launch of a 1:1 iPad program for grades 3–8 this fall, Tower is embracing this potential and leading the way in a new era of educational technology.
Students will receive school-provided iPads to use at school and bring home each evening. At the end of the school year, they will return the iPads, which Tower will then redistribute in September.
“To my knowledge, Tower is the only elementary school in Massachusetts offering a program of this kind—one that ensures that every student in grades 3–8 is equipped with an iPad,” notes Head of School Peter Philip.
Tower’s tablet computer program stems from the findings of the school’s faculty who serve on the Technology Task Force, which identified ways in which the school could be forward-thinking and inventive in the rapidly expanding realm of learning technology. It also follows the directive of the 2009 Strategic Plan: “to introduce our students to the excitement and opportunity represented by the interconnected nature of the 21st-century world” and “support and encourage our students to become efficient and responsible users of developing information technology.”
“The twenty-first century will require more skill in collaboration, teamwork, flexibility, and appropriate risk-taking,” says Mr. Philip. “We believe that Tower’s tablet computer program opens opportunities to better teach those skills.”
During the pilot program last spring, Tower faculty enthusiastically integrated the iPads into their lessons. In Russell Wells’s science class, fifth graders used them to graph the bounce height, stretch distance, and other physical characteristics of glubber, a polymer similar to Silly Putty. Webb Thompson’s sixth graders watched a slideshow of pictures and maps related to the previous night’s reading and took notes on a shared Google Doc. Third graders in Deb Eames’s science class used a drawing app to create renderings of their 3-D gear projects. “Though I was impressed with the results of their drawing work, what was exciting about doing this project on the iPad was how easily it became more than a drawing,” she says. The iPads enabled the students to create a complete documentation of their projects and accomplishments, which can be shared and accessed from any computer.
In the age of Wii, a tablet computer is a learning tool that students can easily grasp. It captures—and holds—their attention. A child who is reading a book on an iPad and gets stumped on a word can click on it to immediately see the definition. And this is just the beginning. The vast array of information that iPads make available to students—literally puts at their fingertips—is astounding.
Tablet computers are an essential tool in the transformation of teaching. For centuries teachers served as “the sage on the stage.” Now, they must become “the guide on the side.”
“The information revolution, driven by widespread access to the internet, means that education is not only about the transmission of knowledge from teacher to students,” says Mr. Philip. “Now, the teacher must instruct the student in the skills necessary to access, filter, process, employ, and take advantage of the massive amount of information available. We believe a tablet program will serve to strengthen the already close connections between teachers and students that form the foundation of the Tower education. Our small class size allows teachers to monitor, support, and encourage each student’s work on his or her tablet.”
In a summer workshop led by technology teacher Christine Henderson, faculty members tossed around ideas of how to integrate iPads into their curriculum—for instance, using blogs as science journals to record outside-of-class activities, trips, and experiments, or studying music theory through an app called Garage Band.
The program appeals to new and veteran teachers alike. Longtime faculty member Nancy McCarthy was excited about the opportunities that iPads brought to her third grade classroom during the pilot program. “I jumped in with both feet,” she says. She’s found that her students have been able to grasp the new technology with ease, and she encourages parents not to be intimidated by it. “I have a phone that is just a phone,” she says with a laugh. “It doesn’t take pictures… It’s just a phone.” Her lack of gadget-savvy hasn’t held her back.
It’s important to note that the goal of the program is not to keep the students in front of a computer screen all day, every day. Rather, iPads will complement the curriculum. “We’ve been a school that’s been highly successful in developing critical thinking skills in our students. This is a tool that will allow us to achieve those skills more effectively,” says Upper School Head Peter Twadell. “It allows students to collaborate creatively and intuitively.”
The evolution of “cloud computing” has contributed significantly to the possibilities of tablet computers in schools. For about a year now, Tower has used Google Apps, which allows data to be stored in a “cloud” rather than on an individual’s computer. Cloud computing makes the sharing of documents between students and teachers much easier, and it dramatically reduces the need for data storage on personal computers.
By combining the best of traditional and innovate educational practices, Tower is equipping students with the skills to succeed in our digital age. “We recognized that we needed to update our program to prepare students for a world that will require levels of creativity, collaboration, and flexibility previously unimagined,” says Mr. Philip.