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School plan to outfit students with tablet computers encounters speed bumps in Manhattan Beach

A pilot program to incorporate the iPad into classroom instruction is meeting both support and opposition in Manhattan Beach.
A pilot program to incorporate the iPad into classroom instruction is meeting both support and opposition in Manhattan Beach.

The idea of deploying the latest technology in the schools wins approval from parents like Geri Miller.

"We have to think of it as the steppingstone to make kids ready for a global economy," Miller says. "They’re entering into a life where computers, iPads, whatever, is part and parcel of being a sought-after employee."

Miller’s son is a junior at Mira Costa High School in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. That school is participating in a district-wide program that’s using iPads in the classroom, and most parents seem eager to expand the program to every student in the district.

But teachers aren’t feeling the love for iPad.

Teachers at every instructional level say it’s one thing to have the device, and quite another to get the support they need to incorporate it into their lesson plans.

To prepare for the pilot program, teachers got two days of training and monthly meetings to talk about what’s working and what’s not.

"Other than that, it’s up to the individual teacher to really explore and experiment with it," says Karl Kurz, president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers’ Association. He teaches Advanced Placement Environmental Science.

Kurz says that just distributing the iPads eats up precious class time — but he’s more concerned about the potential it opens up for cheating. Let’s say he’s giving a quiz:

"You know, you have Safari on the Apple," he points out. "Where all of a sudden they just look up the answers really quick. You’re walking around trying to monitor it, you hit the home button and boom, all of a sudden they’re back on their quiz and test that they’re taking. And we couldn’t see them surf the internet and surf the web."

Kurz also argues that no real research indicates that iPads improve learning. In a school district like Manhattan Beach, he says, that would be tough to prove.

For the second year in a row, student test scores placed Manhattan Beach third in the state among successful school districts. Of its graduating seniors, 97 percent go to college.

Superintendent Michael Matthews says he and the school board have considered teacher feedback and have modified the program for next year. Initially, the plan was to place iPads in the hands of all 6,800 students in the district, but they’ve dialed that back.

Starting in the fall, they hope to focus on the single middle school in the district.

"What we’re seeing is that the iPad is really a personal one-to-one device," says Matthews. "For us to really maximize how it can be used in the classroom... that’s probably the next step."

Matthews says “probably” because he has to factor in the cost. To launch the pilot program, the district used a combination of foundation grants and general operating money. But to expand the program, the superintendent says he’s counting on parent buy-in. He compares it to students buying their own copies of a novel for a literature class.

"It’d be a similar model here," he says. "We have parents who may want to just go out and buy that iPad for their child so they can use it in all their classes and so we would offer that opportunity. But being a public school, of course, we’d have to offer it to those students at no cost."

Matthews says the district needs at least 70 percent of middle school parents to buy their kids’ devices. He doesn’t expect the $499 price tag to be an issue for many of Manhattan Beach’s affluent parents.

The district hasn’t decided yet whether to proceed with that plan. The school board will continue to survey parents and teachers at its next board meeting a week from tomorrow.