Like paper, pencils and books, electronic tablets have become a routine part of classrooms across Richmond.
Students of all ages are now using the devices to learn subjects from reading to math. Experts say the tablets can help close the academic performance gap across students in different racial and ethnic groups. But their promise—in Richmond as elsewhere—depends on teacher training and plans to keep the technology in working condition and up to date.
“Tablets are really good because they individualize instruction a lot,” said Dr. Patricia Donohue, an assistant professor at the San Francisco State University Graduate School of Education and coordinator for the Instructional Technologies Program. “We haven’t had that capacity before technology.”
The tablets in Richmond classrooms are part of the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s (WCCUSD) one-to-one tablet initiative, a four-phase plan to put devices in the hands of each of the district’s nearly 30,000 students.
The initiative was approved by the WCCUSD Board of Education in late March 2014 as part of the district’s technology plan. The multimillion dollar plan, supported largely by bond measures D and E, includes upgrades to the school district’s technology infrastructure and funds to increase tablet use in the classroom.
The goal of the one-to-one tablet initiative is to enhance student learning and help students master Common Core State Standards through technology, said WCCUSD Chief Technology Officer Mary Phillips, in a presentation given to the board of education in September.
“The goal is to create a blended learning environment and to extend learning beyond the classroom,” said WCCUSD Communications Director Marcus Walton via email.
The tablets may also help address the achievement gap exists between the district’s African American and Latino students and their white, Asian and Filipino peers. Tablets allow teachers to address “different needs for different students,” including those with learning disabilities, English language learners and struggling students, said Donohue.
Tablets were first distributed to schools in September 2014, said Phillips. The district gave each school’s “technology lead teacher” a cart loaded with 40 devices. Each school in the district received two more carts in April 2015 and four more carts February of this year, bringing the total number of devices up to 280 per school.
With around 30,000 students in the district, however, that was far from the number of tablets needed to reach every student. In September of this year, the school board approved the $6.6 million purchase of 15,000 Lenovo N23 tablets and supporting equipment—enough devices to ensure one for each student, said Phillips in her presentation.
Alyssa Hoy, a third-grade teacher at Bayview Elementary School who has been using the tablets since early 2015, said she was “really excited” to see more technology being used in district classrooms.
Hoy said the tablets help her “differentiate” her teaching so that it meets each individual student’s needs. When it comes to reading, for instance, students can select books that challenge them at their individual reading level and use the tablets to participate in guided reading activities, listen to books and practice reading out loud.
The tablets “[push] us in the right direction as a district and as a school,” she said.
Across the city at Mira Vista Elementary School, students also use tablets every day to improve reading skills, practice math and learn collaboratively.
Fourth-grade math and science teacher Diane Hoy (Alyssa Hoy’s mother) said the tablets enable her to identify gaps in students’ grasp of math and then tailor quizzes and activities to fill in those gaps.
Fourth-grade English and social studies teacher Debbie Cruger-Hansen said she has used the tablets to set up a Google Classroom equipped with resources and links for students to use in geography assignments.
And in first-grade teacher Caralee Spafford’s classroom, students use tablets every day to participate in the Hour of Code—a program designed to introduce children to computer science and coding.
“It’s incredibly empowering to watch first graders code,” Spafford said.
But the school is 260 tablets away from a one-to-one tablet-to-student ratio, said Mira Vista Principal Chilcott.
And even as the schools await their full set of tablets, the currently used ones are growing out of date—a core challenge of technology use in schools, said Donohue, who was not involved in the district’s program.
“The thing about technology today is you cannot count on it for more than a couple of years,” said Donohue.
Which means that districts “have to put in the money up front” to keep the tablets in working order, she said.
Walton said that all tablets in the district will be evaluated every six months, and each individual tablet will be retired and replaced after five years of use.
Professional development is also something school districts “have to have” in order to successfully implement a tablet or technology program, said Donohue.
Teachers need to know “how to use the tablet and the online worlds its connected to,” she said.
Walton said the district provides training for all teachers. Some schools have held extra trainings for their own teachers. Mira Vista held sessions to instruct teachers about Google Classrooms, shared documents and “basically everything we could use tablets for,” Chilcott said.
While tablets are a “fantastic tool” for learning, they do not replace the teacher in the classroom, Chilcott said. He said it’s important for teachers to use the technology thoughtfully and to continue to learn new ways of integrating the tablets across lessons.
“That’s what’s exciting about being a teacher—is to try new things and to explore,” he said.