On a warm Sunday afternoon, I sat alone in the serenity of Indian Mountain’s Harris Family Library. Outside, there was some snow on the ground from the previous night’s storm; sunlight shone through the big windows. Around me stood shelves and shelves of novels, historical treatises, towering tomes of non-fiction, encyclopedias, and magazines—both current and archival. Across the front circle, my gaze lingered on the campus’s oldest building; the red brick structure stood solemnly against the winter sky, as if nothing had changed in nearly a hundred years. Inside the library, I imagined it populated with students and heard the sounds of fingers tapping keyboards, rather than the gentle scrape of pages flipping and pencils scratching. An idea, which was insinuated by this vision, stole furtively into my head: Change. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, spoke of all ages when he opined that “All is flux”; even at Indian Mountain, where traditions are much prized and old virtues esteemed, a revolution in the mode and manner of education is gradually taking place.
In January 2012, Apple announced a collaborative effort with educational publishing companies, which led to the birth of “iBooks”— an application that allows readers to access books, especially textbooks, on iPads. A related program called “iBooks Author,” which enables teachers to create their own iBooks-compatible textbooks, was launched simultaneously. Such developments would have been unimaginable in the past.
As technology became more portable and fungible, its incorporation into the educational sphere became inevitable. A few schools served as vanguards, and while institutions (like nearby South Kent) enfolded the iPad into their curriculum, Tom Stewart, the Director of Studies here at Indian Mountain, began to wonder what an IMS iPad program might look like. Before the practical aspects of implementing the program could be entertained, two fundamental questions begged resolution: Would students be able to access content efficiently, or produce work reflective of their understanding? From a fiscal perspective, iPads seemed viable: Textbooks in iBooks format were much cheaper than their hardcopy counterparts; and, including the expense of the iPad itself, the total cost of core curricular materials would remain relatively flat. Furthermore, numerous tools and applications such as “Notability” and “Khan Academy” allow more convenient ways to take notes and access class materials, which is another significant benefit for the iPads. After much brainstorming and due diligence, in the spring of 2012, the decision was made to launch a pilot iPad program for the ninth grade. As with all educational endeavors, the primary goal of the program was to augment and improve students’ learning experience; however, in parallel, the implementation of such a program would also prime students for success in subsequent pedagogical and professional landscapes that are constantly being remade and reimagined by novel technologies. Thus, the potential benefits seemed obvious, while the potential negatives––aside from a nostalgic affinity for the feel of books, and the likely decline in social interaction imposed by the tractor beam of yet another digital device––mostly took the form of inevitable, but hopefully minor, unknowns.
The first year of the program was very successful; but, this year, the system was modified to be more open for the convenience of students and teachers, and this broader latitude in terms of apps, downloads, and access proved distracting and ultimately counterproductive for students, according to faculty and students alike. The iPad program is still in the process of developing; in the future, a more articulated and specific course called “Digital Skills” will be a part of thesixth ,seventh, andeighth grade curricula. The goal of this program would be to educate students about the utilization of modern technology, and to find the right balance between novel and traditional ways of learning.
The iPad program is bringing changes to the hilltop. Thus far, the benefits of the iPad program reported by students and faculty are numerous. iPads expedite information gathering and make communication more convenient in collaborative settings, such as the Middle East Summit. Secondly, the iPad is lighter than a book bag, and students tend to be organized, as there are no lost “papers” and all their course materials are warehoused on one device. Thus, students no longer require numerous frantic trips to their lockers throughout the day. With the iPads, most assignments for English, history, Biology, and foreign languages are submitted electronically––there are even some assessments that are delivered via email.
Despite these gains, some negative impacts and areas for improvement remain. With immediate access to information, some teachers doubt whether it is being processed in a profound or permanent way. These instructors also wonder if skills such as reading and writing are being impaired. Moreover, document generation and formatting has been a challenge, as a word processing tool worthy of Microsoft Word does not exist for the iPad. Other than that, games and instant messaging functions posed a distraction for students; some particular tools could also be easily misused. Since the App store has been blocked due to feckless downloading, the situation has improved.
A debatable issue about the iPad is its utilization in particular times and locations. Students considered the prohibition of iPads from the ninth grade lounge an unwelcome development. In answer to this umbrage, Tom Stewart opined that the lounge’s original purpose was for students to interact with one another, not to spend time on screens, and gave notice that the Student Council would need to go through a petition process to reinstate their use in the lounge. Also, given the increased workload for ninth graders, not being able to read on the iPads at night during quiet time (9:30 pm––10:00 pm, when students are expected to stay in their rooms without electronics) was a major concern for boarders.
While the program’s pedagogical intent––preparing students to thrive in an increasingly digital and technology-driven landscape in school and beyond––has never been called into question, like any major undertaking, its implementation has presented some challenges and engendered a few controversies and quandaries, which the administration and the students are working together to remedy.
As for the present, the Curriculum Committee is conducting an ongoing review, laboring to strike a productive balance between hi-tech and tradition. While in some subjects, such as math, it is uncertain whether or not iPads could entirely replace textbooks, because homework and note taking are still reliant on pencil and paper. However, in Biology, various applications and the updated textbook are very beneficial, allowing students to access the most current information. Furthermore, the iPads allow students to better interface with the various class pages on the school website, which teachers use to post important materials. The textbook for Ancient Civilizations was created using the “iBooks Author” app, and is being used successfully by the students. In the English classrooms, the iBooks’ search function has helped students pinpoint specific lines of text efficiently and effectively. Yet, due to the aforementioned word-processing deficit, students are strongly discouraged from using the iPad to draft essays.
As technology continues to advance, and the school strives to incorporate its beneficial applications into its curriculum, a salutary balance will eventually be struck. Even the most outspoken critics of the iPad program would agree that the biggest risk surrounding the inevitable marriage of learning and technology lies in ignoring the issue entirely. The students, educators, and administrators of Indian Mountain are doing anything but sitting on the sidelines; they are participants in the 21st century’s great pedagogical experiment, striving to find the methods and modes by which technology can best serve them.
Back on that warm Sunday afternoon, the library eventually got more crowded as the dorms were closing down to urge students out into the fresh air. Many kids jockeyed for position in front of the computer screens. Suddenly, the buzzing of electronics became very loud and distinct. Some students who were not “plugged in” were sitting in chairs, chattering, socializing; most of the people on their iPads sat in silence, eyes fixed on their screens. In the stacks and racks, amid the shelves and reams of books and periodicals, I was immersed in the flipping of thick pages, the pleasant smell of fresh ink and old books. By my side, something flickered on the screen of the tablet––maybe the most current news or another storm warning. Through the sunlight of a Sunday afternoon, I saw that building of red brick, weathered into a mottled pink, standing, standing, but changing in subtle ways with time.