After a year on the market, the iPad is still the hottest tablet around. And students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have been lucky enough to use them in the classroom for an entire school year.

Teachers at various CPS institutions are using the iPad to heighten student learning at all grade levels. Whether it’s helping special education students “speak” to grocery store clerks on field trips, assisting high school physics students in “building” roller coasters to understand motion and energy, or conducting daily formative assessments to improve student performance, the iPad engages students — and according to experts, that’s the most rewarding part.

“What we’ve found with the iPads as we’ve rolled this out is that having kids with a device such as the iPad in the classroom — within the curriculum — is very powerful,” said CPS Technology Education Director John Connolly. “Our feedback from our teachers and students is that this is something they’re using every day. It’s embedded in all of their subjects, even if they were originally targeting one subject, and we’re seeing some really cool things happening with those students.”

CPS is testing the device in more than 20 schools to see whether it could eventually become a permanent learning tool for the entire school district. Since the trial launched last August, other school districts around the country have followed suit. The expansion of technology in education — and in government at large — is widespread. Over the last several years, many colleges, universities and K-12 school districts, not to mention local and state agencies, have incorporated emerging technology like Apple iPhones and Amazon Kindles into their daily lives. Adding the iPad is just an extension of this.

While some contend that such technology incorporated into the classroom can be more of a distraction than a learning tool, CPS executives, educators and students are proving otherwise.

iPads in Action

At Chicago’s Burley Elementary School, Technology Coordinator Carolyn Skibba said iPads allow for easy collaboration among teachers and students. The administration, she said, was excited about the potential of a device that’s small, flexible, portable, visual and hands-on, especially when working with younger students.

“It really seemed like something that could integrate more seamlessly into the learning experience for the kids,” she said. “We felt that other technology initiatives in the district had to some extent underserved or overlooked our youngest learners, and we felt that the iPad was a tool, because of its visual and hands-on design, would really be a natural fit for our youngest learners.”

The kids have taken to the technology, navigating the iPad’s apps with ease and using the touchscreen like pros, she said. The second-graders in teacher Begoña Cowan’s class learn about spelling and pronunciation without having to share a pile of traditional magnetic letters. Instead, each student uses the ABC — Magnetic Alphabet app on his or her iPad to spell “-oom” and “-oop” words. When it’s time to put the iPads away, they each return the device to the cart with two hands held up against their chests to keep it safe.

First-grade students have used apps like Pages, Simplenote and smartNote to help with basic word processing. For one assignment, the kids copied a photo of a totem pole from the Web, pasted it in the app and wrote a few sentences about the meaning of the totem pole, which shows honor when a tribe chief has died.

“We’ve done a lot of explicit instruction on how to use the iPad and basic word-processing skills for young children, and the iPad allows us to take a virtual field trip every day by searching Web content in a way that’s user-friendly for early childhood students,” said teacher Kristin Ziemke-Fastabend.

At the Chicago High School for the Arts, physics students work in small groups to use the Coaster Physics app to create roller coasters while incorporating traditional learning methods, said CPS Technology Integration Specialist Margaret Murphy.

“They start out with sheets to do the mathematics — the physics calculations — and another person is drawing a roller coaster on a large sheet of paper,” she said. “Another is designing it on the iPad, and they’re all sharing with each other, making sure the way their math worked out is working on the iPad, and it is matching what they’ve drawn on their paper.”

When teacher Kevin Cram taught the roller coaster lesson plan pre-iPad, he said several students didn’t have the opportunity to design their own roller coasters, which involved physical materials like pipe insulation that students cut up and glued together to make one-dimensional projects. “Not everyone was able to create as much as I wanted,” he said. “The iPad allowed easy access and manipulation and creation because of this app. So every group got to design and put their ideas into an actual model.”

Also using a blended approach in the classroom is Jenny Cho-Magiera, whose fourth-grade class at the National Teachers Academy used iPads to follow along with a voice-recorded lesson about the anatomy of a flower. The students saw the pages in the book from which Cho-Magiera was reading. Any student who missed the lesson could review that exact lesson at a later time.

Where does traditional teaching enter the picture? Her teacher’s assistant moved from table to table with a real lily to show students what they were learning about.

High-Tech Learning

For Cho-Magiera, the most revolutionary thing about the iPad is how fast she can respond to students’ assessments of the day’s lesson. Before the iPad, the children would scribble something on a half-sheet of paper and turn it in, sometimes forgetting to write their names. Cho-Magiera wasn’t able to react or answer questions until at least the next day.

Now Cho-Magiera said she uses Google Forms, a survey development interface. In about 30 seconds, she can put three or four questions in the form, and the students use the iPads to answer. The results are formulated into a Google spreadsheet in real time, and she can immediately sort through them and form work groups based on which students need help with different topics.

“Just like that, I have my differentiated groups for that day,” she said. “I don’t need to wait 24 hours to put them into a group — when they forgot what they were learning about yesterday. As a result of that, their proficiency has gone up because my teaching has become more efficient.”

Back at the School for the Arts, Cram also uses iPads for formative assessments, utilizing what he calls a “WebQuest.” Cram likes to include both a pre-quiz and a post-quiz, and during a lesson, students investigate different websites on their iPads to research and answer questions. “We can see what areas of growth they have after they’ve done the research,” he said, noting that the answers to both pre- and post-quizzes are submitted via Google docs.

Cram says he hasn’t seen any dramatic improvements in learning since incorporating the iPad, but he anticipates that there will be soon. “The students are much more engaged and interested in the material. And because of that, maybe I’m pushing them a bit more and asking more challenging questions,” he said. “Through practice and more work with challenging questions, and being exposed to that with the engagement at 90 to 100 percent with the iPad versus much lower with a lecture or even hands-on labs.”

The Ground-Up Approach

Incorporating new, up-to-the-minute technology, especially in education, sounds great. It’s been said time and again that students should be taught in ways that they’re comfortable — and they’re quite comfortable with technology. But to critics, technology might hurt more than help the ability to learn. One person questioning the impact of some new technologies on students is President Barack Obama, who at Virginia’s Hampton University commencement, said that with iPods, iPads, Microsoft Xboxes and Sony PlayStations, “information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”

In Chicago, Connolly said, the way CPS rolled out the iPad trial has helped conquer this challenge. The school district asked its schools to submit applications, which a committee reviewed and then determined which schools would test the technology.

“Not only is that the fair way to do it,” Connolly said, “but it also allowed schools and teachers who were interested in using technology to step to the forefront.” Two hundred schools applied for grants that were valued at more than $20,000. Each grant includes 32 iPads, one MacBook Pro for syncing purposes, $200 in iTunes credit for applications and a storage cart for the hardware.

Professional development has also been a huge part of the trial’s success. CPS partnered with Apple to provide professional development and create a cohort of collaboration across the schools to share best practices and ideas. Teachers train every other month for one day. The morning is dedicated to learning new applications or new ways to incorporate the iPad into the classroom, and the afternoon is geared toward collaboration.

“What we’ve found in the feedback is that teachers love the time of trading stories of how they’re using and implementing the iPad with other colleagues from other schools, in addition to learning something in the front half of the day,” Connolly said. Trainers also provide onsite training in the classroom, so teachers don’t have to be pulled out of class.

Preparation was another factor in the trial’s success. Each teacher devised a blueprint for incorporating the iPad into his or her lesson plans well in advance of receiving the technology. “So they could expand what they were already comfortable doing,” he said.

“All of that together, it’s kind of the ground-up approach.”

Will iPads Infiltrate CPS?

As teachers become more comfortable using the iPad, demand is growing. “Other teachers are peeking in and saying, ‘We want to use that too,’ which is pretty exciting for us, but now we’re running into an issue of people saying, ‘We need that technology,’” said Connolly.

CPS CIO Arshele Stevens said she believes that knowing how to implement and supervise iPad use in the classroom is key to making sure the device doesn’t become a distraction to learning. Part of the original intent of the iPad trial was to ensure that the district served as a guide for all schools to implement the technology. “We’ve always planned, at the end of the trials, to assess, and then if we see a project that’s really transformed a student’s knowledge of a subject matter, to elevate that,” she said. “We want to create a model.”

CPS has three categories of teachers as far as computers go, Stevens said: those who are proficient, those who are fairly comfortable, and then there’s the larger population, which doesn’t even want to use e-mail. “Those are the teachers who really don’t know how to integrate technology in the classroom. It’s not because they’re reluctant; it’s that they don’t know how,” she said, adding that if the district can, based on a successful trial, create a step-by-step process to incorporate iPads in the classroom for a teacher who’s uncomfortable with technology — a process they’re able to execute — that’s beneficial for the entire district.

The plan, she said, is to expand the program next school year not only to additional schools, but also to users in the central office. “We’re hoping to extend its use,” she said, “because we find that most people are really excited about it.”

Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com@jbronwen on Twitter and on Google+.