WILMINGTON — In the ever-changing world of technology, it’s difficult for any school to keep up, but one local Catholic high school is trying to stay one step ahead.
St. Elizabeth High School has ramped up its technological offerings, and at this time next year that will include Apple iPads for every student.
This year, the school has kicked off its Viking Initiative for Innovation — or ViFi — by providing teachers with the tablets and creating a new iMac lab with 31 of the Apple desktop units. This is in addition to its PC lab just down the hall.
“We are really trying at this point to meet the kids where they are, and I think the important part of that is putting into place the technology that will allow them to be as productive as they can be when they leave St. E’s,” said Dana Delle Donne, the school’s academic technology director.
The introduction of the iPads is opening doors for students and teachers alike, Delle Donne said. Teachers were given the tablets in June and asked to poke around over the summer to discover how they could integrate them into their curriculum. By this time next year, the students also will have the iPads, which has the St. Elizabeth community excited.
“It was really fun to hand out the iPads at the end of the year. It was like a big surprise,” Delle Donne said. “Even the teachers who were nervous were excited about the fact that this is something new and something innovative that we’re doing here.”
History teacher Jessica Shoja traveled to Memphis, Tenn., over the summer for a “laptop institute” with colleagues from around the country. She found a “creative bookbuilder” app through which she can create her own course material, and she began to put together a syllabus for her advanced placement course.
Shoja has developed lessons using PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos as well as traditional printed material. All of this is available to students on a file-sharing website they can access at school or home if they have to miss a day of class.
“Snow days aren’t nearly as exciting,” she joked.
Once the students have iPads next year, one of the goals is to use them as a textbook delivery system, Delle Donne said. There are several advantages to using the computers instead of printed materials. One is portability. Students can take the iPads anywhere without having to carry several heavy textbooks.
Another advantage is the content that is available. Electronic textbooks include embedded audio and video, along with links to additional information.
“It’s just amazing what they can do with the tools that they have now. They don’t learn like they did in 1850 and you can’t have them in classrooms like they were in 1850,” she said.
Junior Luke Buzin is excited about ViFi and wishes it was being fully implemented this year.
“It’s different from having just a regular textbook. You’re not just looking at a textbook and copying notes. You’re up close and have hands-on activities,” he said.
A third reason to switch is cost. Apple, through iTunes, is making textbooks available at a fraction of the cost of their printed counterparts. Currently, the availability of textbooks varies, but as more become available, the savings will grow substantially, said Christopher Matarese, St. Elizabeth’s technology coordinator.
“Our current book bill (per student) is between $500 and $600. By having the students buy in with an iPad in that first year, the bill will eventually drop down significantly,” he said.
In another year, when the students will get the iPads, more books should be available online, DelleDonne said.
St. Elizabeth’s officials considered going to MacBooks, which are laptops instead of tablets. Matarese said the iBooks program has more available for iPads than MacBooks, although the laptops can accommodate some content the tablets cannot.
The iPads also are compatible with Edline, a popular system for managing learning content, including assignments, parental notifications and grades.
The new lab and the iPads are not the only advances at St. Elizabeth. Officials are planning a media production lab that will have iMacs with larger screens. There are currently five of these machines available. They are commonly associated with graphic design, as well as audio and video production.
Tools for teaching
When ViFi was being developed, one of the questions was whether to go with Apple or PCs. Matarese said he was known around the school as a pro-PC person. He needed to know that this was the right approach. He was convinced by iBooks.
“There is no other textbook publisher right now that is delivering e-textbooks at $15 a book. And not only are you saving money, but these are content- and feature-rich textbooks. It’s no longer just words and pictures, it’s interactive,” he said.
Principal Shirley Bounds said the school talked to graduates who came back to visit about their experiences and preferences. Over the course of one week, five of the seven she talked to said they were using Apple products.
Officials expect that few of the students will need instructions on how to use the technology since it is already a huge part of their lives. In fact, the teachers often ask the students for help.
St. Elizabeth did not jump into ViFi without careful deliberation, Bounds said. The investment is significant, and the school wanted to make sure all aspects would be used as much as possible.
“It really is about strategizing what your plan is, what your vision is, what’s the exit strategy, what do you want your students to come away with when they leave here?” she said.
There are several issues that had to be considered.
Cost was one. Fundraising has provided much of the funding for the infrastructure and hardware.
The school also needs to keep current. The speed with which technology changes almost literally means that what is cutting-edge today is outdated tomorrow.
Matarese said the oldest machine in the building is in his office, and that is three years old. The others — in two PC laboratories, the Mac lab, media center, mobile iPad lab and in each classroom — are all newer and run the latest operating system from Mac or Windows.
Lastly, the school has to trust its students to use its computers with care and for the right purpose. Sometimes, Delle Donne said, that means letting the students drive the direction of a day’s class. It also means having faith in them when they take their iPads home or out for an assignment.
“Sometimes it’s the ability to say I’m going to trust that this is what you are going to do because these are my guidelines,” she said.
No matter what technology is used, however, it should be noted that they are a tool for teaching material, not the material itself.
“Technology is not the curriculum. Technology is the tool. Just as you used to have a notebook and pencil, now you have a sharper tool,” Bounds said.
Buzin said colleges want students who are ready to work with both Mac and Windows, and he is grateful for the opportunity he is getting at St. Elizabeth. All of his friends at different schools use technology, but he said what they tell him doesn’t sound as hands-on or interactive as what will be available to him once ViFi is fully in place.
The school’s goal is the same as it has always been: to make the students – and faculty – more active learners and to foster a lifelong interest in education. School officials believe more engaging content will help toward that end.
Said Delle Donne, “It’s never going to take the place of me, but it is going to help me be a better teacher and my students be better learners.”