These third graders spend 75% of their day on iPads, and their teacher doesn’t mind a bit

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When the 24 third-graders in Morgan Mercaldi’s class arrive at the Jackson Avenue School every morning, they take their iPads out of their backpacks and put them on their desks. The tablets will remain there, or in hands and laps, until the children put them in their packs to take them home.

Last year, Mercaldi had her students stash the iPads away when they weren’t using them. But she has abandoned that. “Putting them away serves no purpose. We use them constantly,” Mercaldi says.

Mercaldi’s class in Mineola, New York, is in the fifth year of a district-wide initiative that now provides iPads to all students in grades three through nine. At Jackson Avenue, which houses the district’s third and fourth grades, all 417 children, including those in special education, have their own tablets, and they spend about 75% of their instructional day on the devices, more than many other schools that have embraced digital learning.

From the start, in 2010, Mineola’s vision was simple. In the words of superintendent Michael Nagler: “Can you engage kids more, and through engagement can you build achievement?”

Despite a lack of hard data on how digital learning affects student achievement, Mineola, a fairly affluent New York City suburb, is betting heavily on technology to help children meet an array of tough Common Core standards. By embracing iPads while keeping the traditional model of one teacher working with 20-some children, the small school district offers a vision of what the future of digital learning might be.

A different kind of assignment

At around 10am on a late-winter day, Mercaldi’s students sit scattered around the sunny classroom, some at their desks, some perched on a shelf running along one wall and some on the bright blue rug. All the children have their iPads out as they read and do English language arts exercises. Many use eSpark, which offers a “playlist” of education apps geared to each student’s needs.

After about 25 minutes, Mercaldi calls the students together to revise the first-person pieces about frogs that they each researched and wrote. Like so much in the class, the assignment had digital and paper elements. Mercaldi’s students received their iPads in October, and now move smoothly from pencil to touch screen and from paper to tablet. The children did frog research both online and in books, organized their materials on their iPads and did their writing on paper.

Now, Mercaldi tells the students to begin revising their narratives. “I want you to work on communication skills with a partner,” she says. The children leave their iPads on their desks and sit on the floor in two concentric circles. Working in pairs, they alter words in their texts. One suggests changing “scary” to “frightening;” another, “animal” to “creature.”

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Mineola’s embrace of technology was partly driven by the implementation of the Common Core learning standards. As it adopted them and moved toward grading students based on how well they meet the new standards, the district felt it needed to better follow and understand each child’s progress—or lack of progress. Nagler recalled, “The old way wasn’t going to help us achieve our goal. We had no way to assess and organize” so many standards.

Having specific and measurable goals for digital learning is key, experts say. “Are you using the iPad just to use the iPad, or are you doing it to take the teaching you are doing and do it better?” said Heather Schugar, associate professor of education at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Along with the vision, Mineola offered teacher training and technical support, said Janet Gonzalez, the principal of Jackson Avenue School. “I was surprised at how quickly teachers were able to really integrate it into the classroom,” Gonzalez said.

Learning to start slow

Despite its ambition, the school took things slowly. Third-graders began with the variety of apps available on eSpark and then added MobyMax, which provides electronic curricula, mostly for math. Some teachers also use Edmodo, which allows students to submit their work electronically, so the teacher can quickly review it. Gonzalez anticipates adding more programs and apps as the digital initiative matures.

At 10:45am, after a short snack break, the third-graders take out their iPads for the first of several math lessons that Mercaldi will sprinkle throughout the day. Today, the main topic is finding the area of rectangles and the multiplication needed to do that.

As Mercaldi stands at a large interactive whiteboard, the children follow along on their tablets, trying to figure out the area of a 7-by-13 rectangle. “Do we know 7 times 13 just like that?” she asks the students. Most agree they do not, and so break the number down, eventually coming up with three times seven plus 10 multiplied by 7.

Staying with math, the students then use their iPads to answer questions Mercaldi has posted on Edmodo, so that she can see the children’s answers. Reviewing the students’ work, Mercaldi says, lets her assess whether every child is meeting the standards and, if not, where he or she needs help.

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While good teachers adjust work for their students with or without computers, the iPads make it easier. The technology not only lets advanced students move ahead, Gonzalez, the principal, said; it also helps those who are struggling. “It does allow students to have success at whatever their level is, and eventually we hope to close that gap and they can catch up,” she said.

When students finish their math questions, they can move on—to reading on eSpark, working on an app, or watching a video. Then, at around 11:20, the class divides again, this time into four groups, each designated by a color. The group assignments are geared to the students’ individual levels and what they need to know. One group reads with Mercaldi. The other three do lessons on their iPads: one on eSpark, one answering language arts questions on Edmodo, and the third on MobyMax.

The students seem to like MobyMax best because it begins every day’s task with a joke. While the technology may be new, the gags aren’t (“What has four wheels and flies?”). The children also like the badges—usually a nature photograph—that they get when they answer a set of questions correctly.

At Mercaldi’s prompting, three girls explain how they made videos about the imaginary organizations all the students created: Clothes Court, Rockin’ Socks, and Shoes and Books for Reading. The videos are accessible by scanning a QR code with a mobile device.

A couple of boys are big fans of a drawing app. Demonstrating how it creates various visual effects, Brendan Ludwig observes, “You can do all the basics. You can make a perfect house, and if you want to make changes, you don’t have to delete it.”

The school district as technological pioneer

Mineola has been unusual in the extent to which it has collaborated with technology providers to get exactly the tools it wants for its students, says Sara Schapiro, director of the League of Innovative Schools at Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization that promotes technology in education. For example, the district was one of the first to work with eSpark, which sorts through tens of thousands of iPad education apps to select those most appropriate for each student. Recently, the school district and eSpark got together to address objections raised by hard-to-please middle school students. The company consulted with the students and is now rolling out changes—an avatar on the dashboard, for one—to try to address their complaints.

In a similar collaboration, Mineola is working with another company, School 4 One, to develop an app that creates detailed digital portfolios to track student progress in meeting individual Common Core standards.

Even with that kind of collaboration and curating of apps, technical glitches are inevitable. Back in Mercaldi’s classroom, one girl discovers that the camera on her device is not activated, something Mercaldi promises to fix.

Working on MobyMax, Angelica Moreira cannot call up the math quiz she wants. Other children try to help her, something the school encourages. “We teach the kids how to troubleshoot,” Gonzalez says. “Some of the kids are teaching the teacher.”

In the meantime, Angelica selects new backgrounds for her tablet. “I do this a lot while I wait around,” she says. But even after the new wallpaper is in place, the quiz will not load. Eventually someone realizes that MobyMax is preventing Angelica from trying to start a second quiz too soon after taking the first.

Despite being so-called digital natives, the students vary in how expert they are on the iPads and how much they like them. “Some people know more than other people on the iPad and they get jealous,” says Joshua Parr. Joseph Parrino has had trouble with the iPad’s flat electronic keyboard—“my fingers slip,” he explains—and so has brought a plug-in keyboard from home. And several children say they prefer old-fashioned books to the digital alternative.

Most children, though, seem comfortable with the devices. “I have one at home but I was excited to get it at school because I thought it would be an interesting experience,” Brianna DiVirgilio says.

For her part, Mercaldi, now in her second year with the iPads and her seventh year as a teacher, seems unfazed by the technology. “I kind of grew up with technology. It’s the future,” she says.

Screentime remains a question

In general, she tries to take the students off an app after 20 minutes. With several hours during the school day on the iPads, plus homework time and other afterschool use, it’s not hard to imagine that some Jackson Avenue students may look at their tablets for six hours or more a day.

“There were a lot of questions from the community about screen time and the internet, and is this the best kind of teaching and learning,” said Schapiro of Digital Promise. Mineola, she said, addressed that by using technology to keep parents up to date and by creating a video about how digital learning can make it easier for parents to help children with their homework.

The big test for parents and others, of course, will be how effective the new technology is. Little data exists on how digital initiatives such as Mineola’s affect student learning. Many districts that adopted new technology have stumbled along the way.

Nagler believes it’s already clear that the technology engages children. New York State test results that might show whether that has translated to higher achievement are not yet available. eSpark, though, reviewed other tests taken by Mineola students and said it found substantial progress in the first half of this school year.

While some parents may have had qualms about giving young children access to the web, Gonzalez says there have been surprisingly few difficulties. The students clearly know the situation: “If you do stuff that’s bad on it, you can have it taken away,” they say.

An evolving process

The day’s final lesson has the children gathered on or around the rug with their iPads for a science class on climate and seasons. The children and Mercaldi chat about Mineola’s recent weather for a few minutes. Then the teacher goes to the whiteboard, where a reading is displayed, and the children follow along on their tablets. The text has lots of information and complicated vocabulary, so Mercaldi offers tips. “I would definitely use highlighter to mark something interesting or something you learned,” she advises.

Once she has completed reading the passage, Mercaldi challenges the children to write down something interesting from the reading and to post on Edmodo a picture of the climate zone where they would like to live. She advises anyone who’s not certain of the assignment to take a picture of the whiteboard.

The posting of the pictures is a bit slow and they overlap one another when Mercaldi tries to project them on the whiteboard. She pledges to return to the lesson the next day. It is 2:40, and the children pack up their iPads. It’s time for a hockey game in the gym, and, for now at least, there is no app for that.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.