High school teachers have a new disruption to deal with in the classroom: the coming of the iPocalypse. At schools across the country, teachers are being told they must use iPads, which will upend everything they've learned over the years about how to teach students. For some, it must feel like the latest, ignominious blow to a profession often under siege.
But Todd Ryckman, a former high school teacher and current director of technology at Santa Barbara Unified School District, sees the iPad in a more positive light.
Ryckman says he believes his small iPad pilot project will invigorate teachers, not dishearten them, and make their jobs easier. He says the iPad's simple touch interface and easy-to-use apps belie a device capable of revolutionizing the American classroom. Then there's this extra credit: iPads in high schools might help bridge the digital divide for low-income families.
"This is a fabulous new tool," Ryckman says.
An iPad in Every Backpack
After three years of planning, Santa Barbara Unified School District is finally rolling out 1,200 iPads to three elementary schools and an alternative high school this month. Eighty-five miles to the south, Los Angeles Unified School District is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar plan to put iPads in the hands of all 640,000 students by the end of this year.
The iPads-at-schools goal, of course, is to reshape the classroom and bring it into the digital age. The iPad promises to change the teacher from lecturer and instructor to facilitator of interactivity, whereby students take on a greater role in their learning.
Ryckman says teachers can finally get out of the game of getting students to memorize facts -- after all, Google and Siri make searching for facts easy -- and instead help students to think critically about those facts.
"The [board of directors] realizes where we are in history," says Ryckman, who taught high school history for 15 years. Everyone will have an iPad or a similar device in five years, he says, and Santa Barbara Unified School District students need to be ready for this future.
The future of iPads in high schools looks bright, yet iPad pilot projects should start now.
Textbook Publishers and MDM Vendors Buy In
After initially dragging their heels, educational text book publishers are finally getting onboard with ebook versions. Introduced a couple of years ago, Apple's iBooks Author that lets teachers create multimedia textbooks has been gaining traction at Santa Barbara Unified School District, Ryckman says. Apple has made strides to combat theft with a service called Apple Care Plus that essentially bricks lost or stolen iPads. And mobile device management (MDM) vendors are coming out with tools aimed at high schools.
Last month, AirWatch unveiled Teacher Tools that gives teachers some control over student iPads, such as the capability to give exams in single app mode, send documents out to the class, and turn off the camera and disable screen shots so students can't pass tests to their friends.
However, many obstacles still remain on the road to iPads in high schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has run into security problems with students taking MDM profiles off of iPads. There are also rumors of iPads being broken and stolen, and closets full of iPads collecting dust while waiting to be distributed.
But the biggest barriers continue to be cost -- who's going to pay for all these iPads? -- and especially teachers refusing to embrace iPads. The iPad represents a paradigm shift in the classroom, Ryckman says, and that's uncomfortable for teachers who like to have complete control of their environment.
iPad Payment Plans
In order to overcome cost, or at least mitigate it, Santa Barbara Unified School District came out with two plans to put iPads in students' hands. In the first plan, students and their parents can opt to have an iPad handed to them, which they'll have to return at the end of the school year. They'll be on the hook for lost, stolen or broken iPads (although this might change as the plan evolves).
The second is a pay-to-own plan, in which the parents must pay the school a little bit every month en route to owning the iPad after three years. They're also on the hook for lost, stolen or broken iPads and don't own the iPad outright until the final payment. The school district, of course, also doesn't profit from this plan.
Both plans allow students to take iPads home, and parents are responsible for watching over them. If a student takes off the AirWatch profile, as students at Los Angeles Unified School District did, or violates any of the acceptable use policies, then the student will be penalized by not being allowed on the network.
Interestingly, the second plan is helping to close the digital divide. Ryckman says lower socio-economic schools began seeing high rates, in the 80 percent range, of parents wanting to participate in the pay-to-own plan, while the more affluent schools tended toward the first plan that puts the cost burden squarely on the school district.
"Parents who don't have $600 to plunk down at an Apple Store saw the pay-to-own plan as a way to provide this technology to their kids," Ryckman says. "Apple said that this would happen, but our board was still really surprised."
Getting Teachers to Own the iPad Program
Getting teacher buy-in is another big problem, one that Ryckman began solving well before the first student got even a whiff of an iPad. Ryckman was just starting to make the transition from high school teacher to director of technology when he set out to get iPads for teachers.
Ryckman convinced the Parent Teacher Association, and, later, a wealthy donor, to subsidize half the price of a teacher iPad. The teacher can purchase an iPad at half price, which would be their personal iPad, not the school district's, in return for a couple of concessions: Teachers must agree to take Ryckman's iPad classes and use the iPad to enhance teaching in their classrooms.
Ryckman's big bet paid off, and many teachers opted in. Since the iPads were their personal devices, teachers didn't feel threatened by them. Like most iPad owners, they used their iPads daily and quickly became familiar with the touch interface and enamored with the exciting world of apps. They could see the iPad's potential to enhance their profession.
Some three years later, iPads are now being rolled out to students.
"We've had iPads in the hands of our teachers for a long time, well before students get them," Ryckman says. "I think other school districts have made a mistake by trying to do it at the same time."
This isn't to say, however, that the iPad is a teaching panacea. The platform still has limitations that need to be overcome. For instance, AirWatch's Teaching Tools lets teachers force student iPads to open a single, pre-determined app but not multiple ones, such as Calculator and Pages. It would also be nice if a teacher could blast out an app to students at the beginning of class and then take the app off the iPad when class ends.
Despite limitations, the iPad should be a boon for schools. You'd think Ryckman would want to roll out iPads to all 15,000 students at Santa Barbara Unified School District. But that's hardly the case. Many schools want iPads, he says, but they're not ready for them.
Ryckman interviews teachers at schools to gauge their interest, and he still sees some hesitancy. There needs to be nearly 100 percent commitment from teachers before an iPad rollout could be approved.
"This will only work if it's organic, not forced, if there's teacher buy-in," he says.
As a teacher himself, Ryckman knows that the best way to get teachers on board is by appealing to their educational values, which is why he offers iPad classes. It'll take time, he says, but eventually, as educators, they know they need to change with the times.
"Teachers themselves tend to be lifetime learners," Ryckman says, adding, "One 25-year veteran teacher told me after one of my classes, 'This is the most excited I've been about teaching in a long time.'"
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at email@example.com