Staying a step ahead of all the changes in computer technology is no easy task these days, but Superintendent of Schools Dr. John O'Connor and the Tewksbury School Committee took a giant leap in that direction Tuesday night.
In a brief meeting held before the start of the Special Town Meeting, the school committee voted unanimously to ask the High School Building Committee to appropriate just under $100,000 to fund a pilot program to test the effectiveness of using iPads in all classrooms when the new high school opens in September of 2012.
O'Connor and the school committee have studied this idea for the past four months, twice holding "technology summits" where technology experts from within and outside the school department discussed the merits of moving away from a standard textbook-driven classroom and toward a digital classroom.
The focus of their studies has been Apple's iPad, a lightweight, hand held "tablet" computer developed primarily as a platform for audio-visual media including books, periodicals and movies. The iPad also offers wireless Internet access.
Tablet computers were introduced to the market less than two years ago and Apple has garnered nearly a 75 percent share of that market, by some estimates. According to the website "The Digital Home," Apple will sell over 45 million iPads in 2011, at an cost ranging from $500-800, depending on the model.
Last March, Tewksbury voters resoundingly approved a ballot initiative allowing the town to spend up to $81 million in building the new high school, which is scheduled to open in September of 2012. Among that $81 million appropriation was $1.9 million designated to outfit the new school with a state-of-the-art information technology system.
Tuesday evening, the school committee voted to ask the High School Building Committee to spend just under $100,000 of those technology funds a few months early. O'Connor and the school board want to run a pilot program, in the existing high school building, to determine how best to utilize technology in the new school building, beginning next fall.
Under the plan proposed by O'Connor, the school department would outfit four TMHS teachers with an iPad cart housing 25-30 iPad tablets. One teacher from each of the math, science, social studies and language arts departments would participate in the pilot program. Each of those educators teaches three classes daily, so the pilot program would encompass as many as 12 classes. Somewhere between 200-300 students, approximately one quarter of the school's current enrollment, would participate in the pilot program.
During the second half of the 2011-2012 program, teachers and administrators would study the effectiveness of the program so that O'Connor and the school board can determine how best to equip the new school with technology when it opens in September of 2012.
"Technology has changed just in the last two years," O'Connor said. "So I want to make sure, as we're going into the (new) building, that we're looking at technology that...functions well in an educational setting. We know how laptops work. We don't know how iPads work. So let's take a look at them."
Conceivably, there could come a day when the traditional text book is no longer a part of the Tewksbury Public School curriculum. At the two technology summits held in August and September, participants discussed the possibility of issuing "take home" iPads to every student at some point in the future, just as text books are issued today.
"Just on a personal level, having an iPad in my home, I'm amazed at some of the things that we're able to do on it," O'Connor said. "I've spent weekends just exploring, and looking at what an average math teacher would be able to do with it. And I am amazed that there isn't a topic in a math book at the high school level, that you can't find with an iPad."
Tuesday's vote authorized the school committee's representatives to the High School Building Committee, Dennis Francis and Joe Russell, to ask the building committee to fund the pilot program using part of the $1.9 million in technology funds. If the building committee agrees, the iPads will be purchased this fall and the pilot program will begin in January.
"If we can get teachers to think about using this technology, and accessing all of the information that's out there relative to their content area, I think it's a tremendous win for our students," O'Connor said.