Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) and Rep. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) announced in December their plan to propose the “Alabama Ahead Act” in the legislative session, which convenes Feb. 7. The proposal suggests purchasing pen-enabled electronic tablets for each student in grades 9-12. The tablets would allow students to use digital copies of textbooks instead of the traditional printed copies.
“With our recent investments in statewide broadband services, we have a unique opportunity to include digital-based education options in our schools,” Dial said. “We have delayed purchasing new textbooks for years. The books we expect our children to use are in shameful condition, and some students cannot even bring their books home because multiple classrooms share them. The Alabama Ahead Act will fix that.”
The legislators suggest paying for the tablets by selling up to $100 million in bonds.
“Some will ask, ‘How can we afford to do this?’ My answer is, ‘How can we afford not to,’” McClendon said. “If our students are going to compete in a 21st century job market, they need 21st century tools.”
Area schools are ahead of the curve
Area schools have all embraced new technology, and teachers and students are already using the new tools in many of the classrooms.
John Hill, a Talladega High School English teacher, helped lead a group of students in preparing projects for last year’s technology fair. The groups all used Hill’s iPad2 to complete the projects, which all showed how the most popular tablet on the market is useful in the classroom.
“My students did a video newscast as one of their projects for the technology fair,” Hill said. “They videotaped it with a small hand-held camcorder, transferred the files to the iPad and then used iMovie to cut it up and to add on text layers so they could have their names on it, credits and other things. (The iPad2) has its own video camera, so they actually could have recorded (the newscast) with it, which was the plan, but with (having just) the one, I needed to be able to pass it around, not have one group just (using it) the entire time.”
Another group used the iPad2 to pull together a project on volcanoes, which was something the students were studying in science class. The students were able to use a bulletin board-type application called Evernote, which allows students to pull not only text, but also pictures, maps and graphs from various internet resources and store the information in one place.
Teachers and students throughout Talladega County schools are using iPads and other various technological upgrades daily.
The technology upgrades are funded through several sources, according to Jennifer Barnett, an English and history teacher at Fayetteville School. Talladega County schools have chosen in recent years to use federal Title I funds for purchasing technology such as iPads.
“In Talladega County, any of our schools that have elementary grades in the school, they’re known as a Title school,” Barnett said. “Fayetteville would be an example because it’s a K-12. All of our middle schools and all of our elementary schools (are Title schools). Unfortunately, there are a handful that have no title funding, so you’re going to find not as many resource dollars to do this. Like all funds, they’ve been cut. A huge number of our schools have chosen (to use the funds) to purchase technology over the past five or six years and in lots of different types of technology. You see things like SMART Boards and projectors … computers and laptop carts and iPads and handheld devices. You see this in most elementary schools in our county, most of our middle schools and some of our high schools.”
Dial and McClendon suggested the use of digital textbooks would save schools money over time because they are less expensive than printed textbooks. Area schools are already giving students the option to receive textbooks in the digital format for many of their classes.
Michael Robinson, technology coordinator for Sylacauga city schools, said there are advantages to digital textbooks over traditional print copies. However, he does not see the cost being significantly less than the printed version.
“I personally don’t foresee school e-textbooks being significantly cheaper than the traditional textbook because the publishing companies want to make a profit,” Robinson said.
The cost may not be the only factor to consider when weighing the options of purchasing digital or print textbooks.
“The advantage of e-textbooks are no older, outdated books,” Robinson said. “An e-textbook doesn’t have the risk of pages coming off the binding, tearing or have pages missing, and e-textbooks — especially science and history — can be continually updated with current events and discoveries. Another advantage of e-textbooks is the interactive capabilities. Going back to a science e-textbook, students could zoom in and out, spin and move the pictures, watch videos and go to websites related to the lesson. And, like current e-readers, students can get the definitions of words they don’t know by simply touching the word.”
Hill said several classes at THS have given students the option of downloading .pdf versions of their textbooks on home computers.
“When we got our new sets of textbooks a couple of years ago, we went with the technology option, which gave us all of the literature and the grammar books in .pdf format on a CD, so that students could take them home if they wanted to and put them on their computer,” Hill said. “The iPad reads .pdf format. We can easily drop their entire textbook onto the iPad.”
Barnett said using electronic tablets strictly for digital textbooks is not the best use for the devices.
“I don’t think that’s the biggest benefit for iPads and other handheld devices,” Barnett said. “I think that is a benefit. I actually think that if your school is fortunate enough to be similar to my classroom where you have a one-to-one (ratio of students to computers), the concept of textbooks is going to be completely outdated.
“The most important, most significant aspect of having a computer is learning loads about any particular topic (whereas) a textbook is very narrow on any topic. I would definitely not use the argument that we need to put digital, handheld devices in a classroom because this is a great way to provide a textbook. I think we need to get rid of the notion of textbooks, (and) the concept that a book can tell you everything you need to know about a topic.”
Winterboro is one of the schools using iPads and other technology in 21st century classrooms. Principal Craig Bates agreed with Barnett that the iPads at WHS are used for much more than just digital textbooks.
“We have an English class that’s reading ‘The Great Gatsby.’ (The e-books are) less expensive than paperback books,” Bates said. “We also have the audio book as well.”
Barnett and Bates both lauded the iPad’s use in English classes, especially for students with learning disabilities or those who struggle with reading. With the digital version of the book on the iPad, the audio version and study guides for the book, which are available with some apps for the device, a student is able to listen to the book and follow along on the tablet.
“They’ve got the book, audio book and study guides all in one place,” Bates said. “It’s really neat.”
Technology outside the classroom
Reading, writing and arithmetic are not the only areas where technology can be useful in education. Some coaches in the area are using iPads to streamline keeping score and statistics for games throughout the year.
Mike Gibbs, baseball coach at Sylacauga High, plans to keep his team’s stats on the iPad beginning this season. In addition to the bookkeeping ability of the iPad, Gibbs said the tablet also has uses during practice.
“There are several game apps available for use and the iPad lets us use it, plus it has video that can be recorded and watched immediately for teaching points during practice time,” Gibbs said. “The iPad gives us the opportunity to email results to many people, including newspapers, immediately with game stats and cumulative stats as well. We can print out the paper scorebook as often as we need to.”
Gibbs said the Aggies plan to use both the electronic scorebook on the iPad and the traditional paper scorebook this season, but hope to eliminate the paper scorebook next season.
Students at Munford are also using technology outside of a classroom setting, according to MHS teacher Anne Hopkins. The school already has one 21st century classroom that has a one-to-one student to computer ratio. Hopkins said the school would soon receive 35 iPads for instructional use.
“Because of our partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, we plan to use the iPads for project-based learning instruction that is centered around the environment,” Hopkins said. “We have a 100-set outdoor classroom amphitheater, two huge greenhouses, six 1,000-gallon fish tanks and a three-tier wetland. We already use these outdoor learning opportunities often, and we plan to further them as our students gain more access to technology. The iPads will assist in research, virtual field trips, communication with experts, etc.”
A valid use of state funds?
Area educators who are using the current technology have all seen ways to implement it in the classroom. A growing number of classrooms in elementary, middle and high schools in the area are equipped with iPads and other technology, which were purchased with grant money over the past few years. The teachers and administrators gave mixed answers when asked if the proposal by the two legislators would be a good use of state funds.
“It’s a catch 22,” Robinson said. “While we want to continue moving Alabama forward in all areas, not just technology, after several years of proration, we also need the funding to return to lower class size, buy buses, classroom supplies and pay for professional development.
“There are a myriad of curriculum, technology, inventory and financial questions and concerns that must be worked out before e-textbooks and tablets become mainstream in education.”
Barnett, a self-proclaimed advocate for technology in education, has some reservations about the proposed bill.
“It would really sound weird for somebody who is such a huge advocate for technology in education to say I’m not sure, but I will say I’m not sure, because I think the plan for the use of these devices is as important as the plan to purchase them,” she said. “Just the information, let’s put a device in the hands of all the students, is not enough for me to say wholeheartedly let’s go for it.
“I would want to see a plan for using them. I would very much appreciate our legislators asking our teachers and possibly bringing together a panel of teachers to listen to, to allow them to talk to them. I’m talking about teachers who have some experience with this, with technology, the place technology has in our classrooms, to hear them, to help them construct a plan. I believe, no more should I write legislation should they write the plan. I strongly believe that it would be in the best interest of all involved – students receiving them and legislators trying to make a decision to vote on it — for them to have a plan for its use.”
Barnett and Bates both would like to know more about the plan for training teachers to use the devices in the classroom. Many teachers in Talladega County schools have received and/or are going to receive training on the iPad. Barnett and several other teachers and administrators in the county will be helping train those teachers, but the veteran educator also said the best training is hands on, where the teachers take the devices home and use them, figuring out how they work in their everyday life as well as how they will be used in the classroom. She said the plan to train the teachers across the state on how to use the devices would be as important as the plan to purchase the tablets.
“The general rule in education is that you would spend 20 percent of the cost of any item on professional development,” Barnett said. “I would like to see the professional development plan that spends 20 percent of the budget for purchasing this item. Let’s say you’re going to spend $1 million … I need to see the plan to spend $200,000 to teach teachers how to use them. The expectation that they will know (how to use the devices) is unrealistic.”
Contact Heather Baggett at firstname.lastname@example.org.