McALLEN, Texas -- A Texas school district is trying to close its digital divide by distributing thousands of Apple tablet computers in a move that could make it the largest iPads program for students in the nation.
McAllen Independent School District in the southern part of the state began distributing 6,800 devices this week – mostly the iPad tablet computers, but also hundreds of iPod Touch devices for its youngest students.
By this time next year, the district says every one of its more than 25,000 students in grades K-12 will receive an iPad or iPod Touch. The district believes it's the largest to try for complete coverage and while Apple would not confirm that, other districts the company noted as having made large investments have not made ones as big as McAllen's.
Educational use of the tablet computers is so new that there's little evidence available on their impact. Superintendent James Ponce said the district wanted to change the classroom culture, making it more interactive and creative and decided Apple's devices – even at $500 retail for an iPad2 – were the best investment.
"We're just choosing to invest differently going forward," Ponce said.
The district's typical classroom is outfitted with three computers for students and one for the teacher. Going forward those technology investments will be supplanted by the iPads. For now, McAllen's iPads don't carry its textbooks, but eventually they will and at much lower cost than the hard copies that can cost $200 apiece.
A small group of teachers in the district began preparing more than a year ago on incorporating the devices into their lessons. Recently, more instructors have started studying the devices. Teachers already training will see their students receive the first wave of devices.
About two-thirds of McAllen students were characterized as economically disadvantaged in 2010, the most recent data available according to the district. The median household income in McAllen, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border near the southern tip of Texas, was about $41,000 in 2010.
School board president Sam Saldivar Jr. said the $20.5 million investment in the technology aims at "equity."
"We know that when they do achieve and are successful they are going to be generationally impacting their families and this community," Saldivar said.
Stacey Banks, a social studies teacher at McAllen Memorial High School, helped the district shape its program. She said textbooks for her class were 12 years old and she hadn't used them in the past five years, choosing to cobble together her own lessons instead with hopes of collaborating with colleagues to build electronic textbooks.
"It's given us a great opportunity to hone our skills as teachers and change our paradigm a little bit about what our classrooms look like and how we approach learning," Banks said of the iPads program. "That excitement has definitely migrated to the kids."
Sophomores in her class pulled up art images Monday on their iPads. Banks asked them to find out how changes taking place during the Renaissance were demonstrated in art from the period.
"It's actually a really good technology," said 15-year-old Christian Hernandez, gently polishing the screen with the cuff of his sweatshirt.
He had never used an iPad before last week when he and other students got a sneak preview. After spending some time with it over the weekend, Hernandez was using the note-taking application and others with ease.
The district installed tracking software on the iPads so they won't go missing and their Internet connections will still be through the school district's filter, meaning students won't be able to access any sites that they'd be restricted from in school. Parents have to pay a $40 refundable deposit in two payments and can receive help with paying.
Zeeland Public Schools in Michigan gave 1,800 iPads to all of its high school students last fall and hopes to eventually cover every student in grades 3-12. Chicago Public Schools bought about 10,000 iPads and some individual schools in the district have bought more using discretionary funds, but it's far from districtwide.
Hundreds of other districts are experimenting with iPads in individual schools or grades.
Carmen Garcia, director of instructional technology for the McAllen district in Texas, said past technology investments only benefited the students when they were at school. But with the iPads, students and their families will be able to use the technology at home, too.
"It's about transforming learning," Garcia said. "It's really not about the device."