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Do kids learn more when they trade in composition books for iPads?

Swanson Middle School students, from left, Timothy Jacob, Benjamin Cabalu, Lindsey Heyn, Lauren Hartel, and Guy Shoji on their school-issued devices. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

One winter morning, Spark Matsunaga Elementary School teacher Greta Fitch asks her fourth-graders to consider the world outside their door — specifically, the businesses that line their suburban streets. What sorts of stores and services and restaurants are there? Is anything missing?

On each desk is a Chromebook, a lightweight laptop that students use to search Germantown, Md., using Google Maps as if they were driving the streets. Fitch says that in coming days she will ask the students to put themselves in the shoes of the diverse town's residents. What businesses might they want? she asks. What do they not see?

Matthew O’Brien shoots up his hand. The energetic 10-year-old says he’s been looking for sporting goods stores and has come up empty for a certain retailer. He points out that the popular Maryland SoccerPlex is in Germantown, and he has spotted a vacant property beside it where a sports store could be built.

“You’ve even found a location?” Fitch asks.

“People who go to the SoccerPlex would go,” he says.

Fitch smiles. She’s not new to teaching or technology. But she finds that some of its best uses involve student discovery. She tries to be open to the unexpected. Matthew made connections more quickly than she imagined — a sign, she believes, that the lesson is more engaging, more meaningful, than the way she taught it before.

Just two years ago, the class would have visited the school's computer lab once, but most of the multi-week project on economics would have involved handouts, discussion and a printed list of businesses.

“It would have been a lot more teacher-driven,” Fitch says, “and a lot less student-driven.”

Montgomery County Public Schools has one of the nation's largest laptop initiatives. At the halfway point, the district has distributed more than 50,000 laptops to classrooms at a cost of $21.8 million. Across the river, far-smaller Arlington Public Schools is halfway through an effort to provide an iPad Air or MacBook Air to every student in grades two through 12 by 2018; the school system has used $5.6 million in local and state funds.

Interest in tablets and laptops has climbed nationally as they’ve become more affordable. More standardized assessments are also done online, and more schools are switching from traditional textbooks to digital content, experts say.

“It’s a major movement,” says Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. What’s important, she and others say, is to adjust teaching methods to make learning deeper and more engaging. “If all you’re doing is automating the old practices ... you didn’t change anything,” Flynn says.

Too many school systems buy big before thinking through how devices can be used to improve teaching and learning, says Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps implement tech programs. Her organization urges schools to avoid “the spray and pray approach,” and to emphasize learning rather than devices, Wilson says.

Officials in Montgomery and Arlington, with programs in their second year, say technology is a tool — not an end — that allows students to work at different paces, to collaborate more, to demonstrate what they know in varied ways and to discover a broader world.

“The driver here is excellence in teaching, and these are additional resources and tools that can take that work to another level,” says Sherwin Collette, chief technology officer in Montgomery.

Many supporters also say such initiatives help close the gap between haves and have-nots by giving children in poverty access to digital devices they may not have at home. In Montgomery, some teachers and parents have become strong advocates and parents have raised money to buy more.

“These kids are going to leave school and enter a world where technology is ubiquitous,” says Cathy Stocker, a PTA leader in Bethesda. “Their ability to access that technology in school gets them ready for that world. I understand there needs to be balance. But to me the Chromebook is a powerful tool.”

Others have raised concerns about funding, the amount of screen time, possible negative health effects of WiFi signals, and adequate safeguards for private information.

Michelle Gluck, vice president of educational issues with Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, does not see a need to rely so heavily on digital devices to engage students. And she says she’s heard from parents worried about third parties collecting student information through online activities at school.

“I’d like us to be mindful about how we use technology and not rush to use the newest and shiniest thing without first considering both the risks and the benefits,” she says.

And while both systems say they have done a lot to train teachers, many involved say more support is needed. Collette, from Montgomery, calls training “the single most important predictor of success.” But leaders of teacher associations say not everyone is equally prepared, with gaps in usage and expertise.

Research on technology’s impact on K-12 achievement is limited and mixed, partly because it’s difficult to isolate the role of technology from other things that occur in a classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who studies technology use in schools.

A major report in 2015 showed countries that made large investments in technology for education did not see improved results on certain tests, a result that Soloway says reflects the need to adjust teaching and learning as technology is introduced.

Darryl Joyner, who helps lead Arlington’s technology initiative, says while there’s no “direct line” between test scores and digital devices or any other tool, research shows engagement is linked to performance. “The big thing I’m seeing is students excited to learn,” he said.

Debra Mahone, who coordinates technology efforts and other interventions in high-poverty schools in Prince George’s County, says after iPads and Chromebooks arrived in select schools in 2010, educators observed students being more interested in coming to classes and teachers more excited about instruction. When it comes to teacher practice and student engagement, she says, “we think they make a huge difference.”

At Arlington's Swanson Middle School , sixth-graders arrive every day at Beth Sanderson's classroom toting their iPads, which they can take home, and sit surrounded by 1,500 books that Sanderson has organized by genre.

It’s a blend of old and new, a world of toggling between the traditional and the digital, much like the one outside of school. In one day, Sanderson’s students might take notes on nonfiction articles in longhand, gather with other students to share information and use iPads to create a shared digital presentation. “There’s a nice, fluid use of technology and paper, and it all seems natural to them,” she says.

Sanderson gives the students choices whenever she can. Some go for all things digital; others, a mix.

“I like paper books because you can have them right in your hand,” says Tommy Weber, 11, a Swanson sixth-grader, while classmate Anna Lavan, 12, says she likes reading both ways. Still, they’re enthusiastic about iPads. Other sixth-graders say the tablets help because their hands get cramped when they write longhand. They say iPads make it easier to stay organized, track grades and do homework; they give them a sense of freedom — and connection, one student says.

The downsides: Charging it. Not always having WiFi. Not being able to load it with games.

Sanderson has noticed that many sixth-graders find it easier to write longer on iPads and are more willing to revise.

“I definitely feel [the iPads] improved their writing,” she says.

As a teacher, Sanderson finds she can pinpoint her interventions better. She sees her students’ compositions unfold on a shared platform. If she notices someone struggling, she seeks them out. “I can review or reteach or refresh,” she says, “whatever the need is.”

In Arlington, each school has integrated the devices in different ways. At Abingdon Elementary, second-graders did a project about the "superpowers" of animals that began with a discussion of the writing process on Skype with children's book author Jerry Pallotta.

They used iPads to access websites, online encyclopedias and e-books — while also relying on traditional magazines, books and handoutsas they researched their own creations: books, riddles or poems. The final product could be made using iPads or paper.

“They never were assigned it for homework, but they were asking if they could work on it at home because they were so engaged and invested,” says Michelle Jaeckel, who mentors, guides and trains teachers at Abingdon on integrating technology into instruction.

But some parents and educators question how critical screen time is for the youngest children. Launa Hall, a third-grade teacher in Arlington last year who has left the district, says she saw colleagues do great things with iPads but believes students in pre-kindergarten through third grade need real-world experiences and social interaction. “I think they should start screens later — and with caution even then,” she says.

Gluck, the Montgomery parent, says there’s a popular misconception that if the youngest children aren’t using technology, they’ll be left behind. “I think once they reach the appropriate age, they will quickly catch on,” she says.

Supporters say it’s not a passive exercise. In math class, Abingdon’s fourth-graders made expert videos to show their comprehension of quadrilaterals or two-digit-by-two-digit multiplication.

“One of the big powers of it is that now students consume information and demonstrate their learning in a way that matches their interests and abilities,” Jaeckel says. “It’s personalized.”

At Germantown's Matsunaga Elementary, principal Judy Brubaker says it's rare these days to enter a classroom in grades three, four or five and not see at least one child on a Chromebook. (Students here generally don't take them home.) But the classrooms have not become hushed places, filled only with the sound of clicking keyboards. Most buzz with activity as students share what they find and teachers lead discussion.

In Fitch’s classroom, the laptops are open as students work on poems they’ve written, consulting a teacher-selected website for rhyming words. Another day, students read nonfiction texts and highlight main ideas; some use Chromebooks and others work on paper.

Fitch says incorporating technology is a work in progress and that teachers share ideas. Fellow teacher Alison Yates thought of melding Google Maps into the economics project to make it more hands-on and relevant to students who would recognize stores in their community and learn about others.

“It was like a virtual field trip,” Yates says.

Fitch’s students did final presentations for their classmates in January — some with jingles, some with slogans or props. Matthew O’Brien and Bria Weiner worked on the idea for a sporting goods store and fitness facility they called Super Sporty.

The would-be entrepreneurs, wearing T-shirts with the name of their imagined business, then faced a panel of school administrators acting as potential investors, in a scenario similar to the ABC reality show “Shark Tank.”

The judges found all the ideas worthy of investment — and gave each kid a play $100 bill.

Afterward, the children eyed their money, which led to a question: What was the highest denomination of a bill?

“That’s a good inquiry,” Fitch told them. “We should Google that.”

Donna St.George writes about education for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, email or visit

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