2013-02-28 / Top News


DON’T TRY TO IMAGINE SCHOOL WHERE PAPER AND BOOKS NO longer exist (an oxymoron of sorts). Don't try to imagine hallways and classrooms where every student or teacher carries only a little cheeseboard with buttons — a device as thin as a bread slice, as wide as your two open palms, and as long as a butter knife. 

Don’t even try imagine that each little 23- ounce to is the rough equivalent of the Library of Congress or a great research institution or even an intercontinental transporter — or conversely, the equivalent of a teacher who patiently repeats what she said in the lecture on demand anytime, for each student.

No need to imagine it, because that world has arrived, or soon will in private and public schools across southern Florida.

Here, Florida Weekly offers a brief glimpse of how this revolution is taking shape.

Some, then many, then probably all of the region’s schools will be reborn in purely electronic form by decade’s end, educators predict.

Every student uses an iPad instead of books and paper in classes like this one at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale. Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers starts a similar program next year. 
ERIC RADDATZ / FLORIDA WEEKLY Every student uses an iPad instead of books and paper in classes like this one at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale. Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers starts a similar program next year. ERIC RADDATZ / FLORIDA WEEKLY “It’s like the industrial revolution. It will completely change the way students look at the world,” says Dwayne Altman, the IT director for Lee County Public Schools.

That’s no problem for students, who already live in a different world than the one inhabited by their parents and teachers.

In many cases, they’re familiar with the terrain ahead.

“We (educators) recognize, that the kids are the natives and we are the tourists — they have the knowledge,” says Richard Jean, principal of Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches near Fort Lauderdale. He and his staff pioneered a complete departure from the world of bound paper books in South Florida three years ago.

Now, no books can be seen in the halls or classrooms of that school. Acting as mentors, Archbishop McCarthy educators shared their experiences with Bishop Verot High School in Lee County and others in the region and state.

In those places, the same will be true shortly.

“We will not order a single set of textbooks for the very first time, for next year,” says Dan Jackman, a Bishop Verot spokesman.

By the time freshmen arriving in August become seniors, in 2017 — and possibly before that — Bishop Verot will be bookless.

“We want education to be more than a (paper book) or a book on an iPad,” explains Mr. Jackman. “We want it to be a digital learning environment where the world is endless.”

GONZALEZ GONZALEZ A student at Archbishop McCarthy, Alessandro Vecchi, describes what that’s like: “I never pick up a book. You never have to grab a book.

“And, we can look up information on top of information, book on top of book, whereas before we had to use just one textbook.”

Book on top of book, the novel on top of the venerable. In the milieu of electronic education, information is updated at a moment’s notice, as new discoveries and new understanding occur in the old arts and sciences. In such a revolutionary new world, textbooks are no longer static.

To understand the impact, look to the past. Imagine Detroit, 110 years ago: Just before dawn, a group of early risers make their unassuming ways (probably on foot or by horse and buggy) from their little homes into Henry Ford’s factory, to build a horseless carriage.

Imagine those cars appearing on streets crowded with the clattering bustle and mess of horses and buggies, in Boston and New York and Philadelphia, in Washington and Baltimore and Atlanta, in Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers.

To imagine that, perhaps, is to comprehend the revolution happening or about to happen in every school and to every child — and therefore to American culture as a whole — right now.

The first little steps

It starts like this, with a plan in place and marching orders issued at a private school, Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers:

• “March 27: issue iPads to teachers for the first time, with pre-loaded applications. Teachers will accustom themselves during the Easter break.”

• “April: Overhaul the school’s wireless network with new Wi-Fi access points and increased bandwidth through fiber optic cable. Educate teachers.”

• “May and June: Teachers attend workshops hosted by Apple, and by an east coast school already in the process.”

• “July: student iPads arrive at Bishop Verot, where faculty will begin downloading applications for learning into each.”

• “August: students arrive and receive their new iPads.”

Like many things, it’s not really quite that simple, of course, although that schedule comes directly from the school. But the planning behind it has been long and careful.

For Bishop Verot officials, a visit to Archbishop McCarthy proved helpful, in part by changing their minds about how to make the changes.

“Our principal thought he liked the notion of having students bring their own devices,” recalls Mr. Jackman, a spokesman for the school. “But after we saw how effective it is to have everybody use one device (as they do at Archbishop McCarthy), we were like, ‘OK, I guess we won’t be doing that.’”

Public schools may struggle

For public school administrators, such problems can occur on a scale 20 to 80 times as large. Merely assessing which texts are available for downloading, since the state must approve all public school textbooks, may prove to be no easy task. Deciding whether to ask students to bring their own devises or go with a school district plan for uniform technology such as the Apple iPad involves more than merely determining what is best.

The Lee County School District, for example, has 82,000 students in 119 schools, the 40th largest district of 13,000 districts in the nation, officials say. Collier includes 44,300 students in 48 schools, and Charlotte has 16,000 students in 21 schools.

“It’s one thing for a Bishop Verot or a Canterbury to (do away with books), but it’s another for us,” says Dr. Douglas Whittaker, superintendent of schools in Charlotte County.

In Lee County, “70 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch plans, which means they don’t have the money to go out and buy an iPad,” notes Mr. Altman.

So demographics and economics have to be taken into account across broad swaths of the population, which is not the case at most private schools.

By 2015, however, state officials will require local districts to begin, stepby step and slowly, to bring in the new technology for students, he says.

How this will be paid for remains to be seen.

In Charlotte County — the first public school district in Florida to wire its schools for Wi-Fi — “there isn’t the money to expand what we have right now,” says Dr. Whittaker.

But Charlotte is ahead of the game anyway. A hurricane named Charley helped officials look to the future, along with an administrator named Chris Brefs, the district’s instructional technology director, says the superintendent.

“Chris saw the value of being wireless a decade ago, so we have been wireless, school to school and school to district, since Hurricane Charley (in 2004).”

Ten high school and middle school classrooms are now using iPads issued to students (with restrictions on their applications and parents agreeing to be responsible) as a kind of test, along with four classrooms of fourth graders in elementary school.

“That’s really going well,” says Dr. Whittaker.

Just as it is in Collier County, with a private school taking the lead.

St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples formed a committee to compare the capabilities of Kindles, laptops, Android tablets, Nooks and iPads, the school explains in an online report.

“After careful review and a cost analysis of the devices vs. the functionality, we decided that the Apple iPad best suited our mission (to help students and teachers work together),” the report explains.

So now, as at Archbishop McCarthy, incoming freshmen received iPads, leased to them on a per-month basis.

“Every two years our school will return the existing devices to Apple in exchange for the latest generation iPad. Upon graduation, the class of 2016 will exchange their existing iPads for the latest generation iPad. Our current students will be offered a pro-rated amount for which they, too, can have a brand new iPad once they graduate.”

What could be a better deal than that?

Well, free iPads.

In Collier’s public schools, where officials are planning for the eventual transformation to electronic education, a high-tech medical device manufacturer, Arthrex, provided iPads to high school science classes.

After Collier Schools Superintendent Dr. Kamela Patton solicited help from the company, “Thirty new iPads were delivered to each of our high schools,” says Joe Landon, the Collier schools spokesman, writing in an online newspaper report.

But whether some kids have iPads or not, in all three Southwest Florida counties, so-called Smart boards or their like have been widely in use for some time — large interactive screens in the classroom that allow teachers and students to touch them, creating images or gaining information at the speed of light, together.

The private school experience

At Bishop Verot or the Canterbury School in Lee, as at Cardinal Neumann or Seacrest Country Day or the Community School in Naples — all well-funded private schools — small size and wealth allow more readily for adaptability and change, more quickly, than in public schools.

The cost to rewire the Bishop Verot campus so that many users can have electronic access points is about $15,000. The school will spend another $85,000 or so for professional development, says Mr. Jackman — getting faculty and staff up to speed.

Parents, then, will pay for the iPads by allowing their children to lease one from the school for $25 a month, which includes all the applications and electronic books a teacher may need, in prices ranging from $1.99 for a science app, to $15 for a history or math e-textbook.

This does not mean an end to the lucrative textbook business, however (although it might result in the demise of some printing plants). Publishers no longer sell books when they become electronic, explains Mr. Jean, the Archbishop McCarthy principal. “Now, they lease those books for a year.”

When one student in one class completes that year, another student entering the class will need to lease the book again. But such books could be updated at any time, and they might come with embedded videos or other tools.

The advantages of the new approach should become clear pretty quickly.

“The difference between a one-toone iPad program (one instrument for one student), is number one, it eliminates textbooks. We could easily spend $100,000 on replacing a set of textbooks — they only last about four to five years,” says Mr. Jackman.

And number two, education can be tailored to each student.

These changes were pioneered by Archbishop McCarthy High School, where all students and teachers now use Apple iPads with downloaded educational applications and e-books.

If iPads were engines, the school would put restrictive governors on each. As it stands, they put filters on each device that restrict its uses. And that’s not a bad thing, students agree.

“This sounds funny coming from a student, but I think it’s really good they put the filters on,” says Adriana Gonzalez, a student at Archbishop McCarthy. “That way we can’t use them for certain things in class like (Facebook or gaming). It could be a distraction. I won’t learn if I’m playing games.”

If students damage or lose their devices, an insurance policy purchased by the school will replace them for $150.

So now, there are no textbooks. No paper or copiers. No notebooks. And during school hours, at least, no games.

And now, student attitudes have changed significantly, says Mr. Jean.

“You ask in a school not using this approach what the kids think of iPads and apps, and they think it’s about games,” he observes. “Now we’re teaching them how to use this as a powerful tool.”

Not a game.

“I never used to do any homework,” says Alessandro Vecchi. “But when they gave me the iPad I was compelled to do the homework, because it was a lot of fun.

My view now is, it’s not a gaming device. It’s more of a use for work. But I built my own computer, so I’m sort of into it.”

The experience of Archbishop McCarthy administrators in getting to this point is instructive.

Mr. Jean and his curriculum coordinator, Les Brown, traveled the country looking at the few schools to have taken up the new technology before deciding how to proceed.

It helped them become admirers of Apple, to start with, because the company can adjust and update better than any other, he believes.

“People laughed at iPhones — they said, ‘What kind of phone is that? I’ll never leave my Blackberry.’ And now Apple’s a $500 stock and Blackberry’s a $15 stock.”

But parents and students, both, were skeptical. Mr. Jean, a former college basketball player, reduced the amount of money the school spent on the winning football program, for example, and aimed it the new technologies for students.

Right off the bat, enrollment dropped 20 percent, to about 1,200 students.

Everything was new; not only him, but his thinking, which frightened off some people, he admits.

Now, his approval rating is high.

The school is back up to an enrollment of 1,500, he says, and many parents and students are eager to join the Archbishop McCarthy community.

“We had to upgrade the whole infrastructure of this school,” he recalls. “We have many employees, and suddenly you add 1,500 kids onto the system, and now at any point we have 1,800 on the Wi-Fi system.”

And at some point soon, in schools everywhere, there will be 18,000 and then 18 million earning electronic educations. ¦

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