iLCPS update: We’re rolling (out) now

We won’t say Christmas has come early because, from the looks of the retail establishments around, Christmas is already here. But to see the faces of our young students as LCPS begins its distribution of iPads is to know they could not be more thrilled if Santa himself had brought them to school. That’s no surprise. Through iLCPS, as our digital learning initiative is known, students are getting to use something that’s new and cool and something that would not otherwise be available to many of them. What might be surprising to someone unfamiliar with the level of forethought, planning and preparation that has gone into iLCPS, however, is how smoothly the distribution has gotten under way.

To date, we have distributed iPads and MacBook Airs to almost 600 teachers. We have distributed iPads to students at two elementary schools, will do the same at two more schools this week and expect to have iPads in the hands of students at all nine elementary schools — that is, more than 5,000 students — by early December. In dozens of meetings, we’ve explained iLCPS to and answered questions from the parents of the great majority of those 5,000 students. Behind the scenes, as part of an ongoing program, we’re conducting professional development sessions with teachers on using their iPads and MacBooks and developing digitally inspired lesson plans.

In short, we’re off to a good start. That doesn’t mean we expect this enormous project — not only the distribution of iPads to more than 9,000 students over three years but the accompanying shift to digital learning — to come off without a hitch. We just expect to be able to manage and adjust to  the odd eventuality. We acknowledge potential problems raised by parents — security of the devices, inappropriate content, loss to damage, the general fickleness of technology — and we’ve taken steps to prepare for them. The most obvious risk is in not trying, not moving in a direction that will best prepare Lenoir County’s students for life and work in the 21st century.

Let’s go back to that look on kids’ faces when they get their iPads. At least some of that excitement has to do with their feeling — call it instinct — that the iPads will make learning more interesting and more fun. For educators, that combination adds up to engagement, and it is the point at which learning starts. One calculation of a child’s average attention span is one minute per year of age. Even among fifth graders, the oldest students in this first year of iLCPS, that’s not a great swath of attention. With kindergarten students, the youngest to receive iPads, it’s less than half that, almost nothing. If you consider that a teacher’s first challenge is getting students to focus, the iPads’ value as a classroom tool becomes apparent immediately. (Check out the engagement level of these students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoCtadCFDwg)

At such moments of collective attentiveness, we used to say everyone was on the same page. How old-fashioned. Devices like iPads are tools of what is known as 1:1 (or 1-to-1) technology, which simply means that instruction can be individualized, almost personalized. In a classroom of 20 or 25 students, all can be focused and at work, but on different assignments or different subjects, according to their needs or the pace that works for them. That learning environment might add another ball to the several the teacher is already juggling, but it does ease one of a teacher’s primary frustrations: how to provide equally for the range of ability levels that invariably make up a classroom. Whether the pace of group instruction is too fast or too slow, students on either end of the continuum are in danger of simply clocking out, and there is where learning stops. (See engagement, above.)

Each of the students receiving iPads in Phase One of iLCPS has individual needs — that hasn’t changed about children — but they all do have one thing in common that is relatively new. They are all children of technology, the so-called digital natives. They understand devices like smartphones and iPads almost instinctively and they have expectations for their operation. They expect these devices to give them information. True, a lot of the information won’t exactly elevate the culture, but given the good direction they’ll get from teachers, it’s a short drive from information to learning.