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St. Mary’s Ryken High School students have ditched their textbooks in exchange for iPads, lightening their backpacks considerably and transforming time in the classroom.

“You really don’t unlock the potential of an iPad in the classroom unless everyone has one,” Jason DeLucco, assistant principal for academic technology, said.

English teacher Misty Frantz said she quickly embraced the technology, as did the students in her classes. “It’s a constant virtual world,” she said. “You can see it in motion.”

During a lesson on “synthesizing sources,” students typed or scribbled using a stylus answers to a question from the teacher on their tablets.

From the back of the classroom, one student called out to nobody in particular, “How come my iPad isn’t working?” Another student eventually reached over to help get the device (and that student) back on track.

“OK, Ryan, go ahead and blip up on the Apple TV,” Frantz said.

Ryan Bowles, 15, checked off a box from a pull-down menu on his iPad and his response, via a digital projector mounted on the ceiling, popped up on a whiteboard at the front of the classroom.

“It’s convenient,” Bowles said, “but it also has its problems.” At first students were having technical glitches, either with connectivity through the school’s servers or issues with their tablets.

DeLucco said that even though the school was able to get 100 gigabytes of broadband connection to the school, there were areas within classrooms that needed better Wi-Fi access. Those problems have been remedied, he said.

Bowles also said it is sometimes difficult to draw a graph or other answers with the stylus. Some of that may become easier as students get used to the new devices, instructors said.

Technology often comes with its own set of problems, but so far issues have been fixable, DeLucco said.

“I really think we’re better off then where we expected to be a month in” to the new initiative, he said.

Frantz said that sometimes the students do play games on the devices, but it becomes obvious to teachers as they continually swipe or tap the screen or “steer” the tablet. “I think what it has done is created a lot more learning opportunities,” Frantz said.

Having the iPad constantly at the students’ fingertips helps with research, whether it is simply looking up a quick fact or delving deeper into a topic.

Lighter loads, more information

“I think this is where the 21st-century learner is,” Mary Joy Hurlburt, president of the school, said.

The school modeled its program on other Xaverian schools in the country that switched to a universal iPad program of study.

Unlike those in public school, students at St. Mary’s Ryken already had to buy its own textbooks, with bills that ranged anywhere from about $400 to $750 a year, DeLucco said.

Now, students must make the one-time purchase of an iPad, which can range from about $300 to more than $500 (the smaller iPad-mini is also acceptable). And they must buy the electronic books to install on the tablets. The electronic version of a textbook can be as low as $15, although some still top $100. Savings for families can be realized by the second year, DeLucco said, or even in the first year.

The school is using iPads it had already purchased for student use along with some donations to help students who might have a hard time affording a tablet.

This year’s seniors were exempt from the all-iPad requirement.

DeLucco said he has had virtually no problem finding quality electronic books for classes as that market continues to grow.

Megan Morgan, 15, said she had owned an iPad before this school year, but that she only used it recreationally.

She said she is impressed with how the devices are being used for school work. She was able to purchase three of the four electronic books she needed for $15 apiece, and the fourth book, for an Advanced Placement class, cost $60.

“It’s a lot nicer not to have to carry so many notebooks” and textbooks, Morgan said. She said now that she is used to using the device for school, she feels more organized.

Each student had to register his or her iPad with the school at the beginning of the year. School staff downloaded certain applications onto the tablets and enabled the Wi-Fi connection to the school.

The school’s Internet connection block sites with inappropriate content, as well as social media sites, including Facebook. The video website YouTube is also blocked, for now, to the dismay of some students.

DeLucco said he is working to install allow a special version of YouTube that would give teachers the ability to make specific videos that tie into lessons available to students on the St. Mary’s Ryken network.

Teachers can add a date and time for when homework assignments must be turned in.

Some use midnight as the cutoff, leaving some students to scramble to get work done and taking away the breakfast table work some students are used to.

Teacher John Pennisi said he is being flexible this year with the homework deadlines, and sometimes allows for late submissions. But, he said, as the students get into new habits of working with and on the tablets, he will expect assignments to be done when he says they are due.

He said using the devices had dramatically cut down on the paper copies he used to make to give out in class, and cuts down on time grading quizzes and other assignments.

“They always have all of their books with them,” so no one forgets a textbook any more, Pennisi said. He had only heard of one or two occasions when a student forget to bring their tablet to school.

Another teacher at the school is instructing a “flipped classroom,” where she records new lessons for students to watch at home and then allows students to do what would have been homework during class time, when she is immediately available to help.

The school is also teaching students “digital citizenship,” which is essentially explaining how to use technology appropriately and the potential pitfalls.

For instance, he said, students need to understand that once something is posted on a site, it is likely essentially there forever, and could potentially be seen by anyone, DeLucco said.

The idea is for students to learn how to create a positive digital footprint, Wood said.

Principal Rick Wood said the school has been moving toward the initiative for a few years, first making sure the infrastructure, including servers and large available connections to the Internet, were in place, and then providing training for teachers. “I really see it transforming the whole teaching and learning experience,” he said. If students are using technology like this at home, Wood said, it makes sense to use it at school as well.

jyeatman@somdnews.com