(Steven Lane/The Columbian)Buy this photo
LA CENTER — As Mike Holland paced the front of his seventh-grade math class at La Center Middle School, his students settled into their seats, touch screens in hand.
There was no click-a-tat of three-ring binders opening or the rustling of glossy textbook pages turning. There was just the silent unsheathing of tablet computers from their cloth vessels and the chatter of excited voices.
This is the new classroom.
As touch-screen gizmos become ubiquitous tools for everyday life, they're also becoming mainstays of Clark County classrooms. Districts as far afield as La Center, Battle Ground, Vancouver and Washougal use, or have used, iPads at one time or another. This school year, school districts are expanding their iPad programs. In La Center, the program started as a pilot program in 2012.
Holland, 63, is in his first week of incorporating the tablets into his daily lessons, and he's enthusiastic about what he's seen. He supplements the traditional math curriculum with interactive lesson plans from a website called Khan Academy that was recently featured on CBS' "60 Minutes."
Khan Academy provides interactive tutorials, while Holland provides the hands-on teaching, which involves roaming the room and answering questions. What this means is a more fragmented form of learning, he said, but one that's based on doing rather than listening to teacher lectures.
The dreaded worksheet is becoming a mere memory, he said.
"One of the things that has always bothered me about the way we teach is that life doesn't present a page of fractions," Holland said. "The whole day is not one kind of problem. Everything is a different kind of problem. (Khan Academy) has a variety of problems, and that's more real."
So far, students have been responsive to the tablets. After all, they've been using the devices for years at home.
While some students grumbled that there were kinks in the tablets -- they have a tendency to crash, a couple of students said -- they've embraced the new tools.
"I think the whole electronic use thing gives kids more of a feeling that it's going to help them," said Camron Rowen, 12, as he logged on to his tablet in Holland's class.
Technology in the classroom is the natural evolution of education, Holland said.
This year's program in La Center will provide not just tablet devices to younger students, but Google Chromebooks — tablets with a detachable keyboard — to older students, so they can practice typing. The devices are strictly for in-class work.
In Washougal, where a similar pilot program became permanent this year, district officials tout technology's ability to enhance the district's curriculum.
There are other benefits, the district says.
Since rolling out the program last year, excused absences have been 34 percent lower, while tardies have been down by about 30 percent.
"Based on what we've seen, the program is being expanded beyond the pilot," Superintendent Dawn Tarzian said.
Cost to education
While putting new technology into classrooms comes with costs, educators say there will be savings, too.
Washougal's iPad program, which reaches about 500 students, costs the district roughly $280,000. The bulk of the money comes from the district's technology levy. But some teachers have taken the initiative of buying their own.
In Cindy Coons classroom at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary in Washougal, kindergartners dabble with the devices. Two years ago, she wrote a $2,000 grant to bring them into the classroom.
Even 5- and 6-year-old students have an affinity for the iPads, Coons said, and know exactly what to do with the devices.
"They're just sponges," Coons said of the students. "They're ready to learn. Everything is an adventure. The more we can stretch their boundaries, the better."
Like Holland, she uses free apps to supplement her teaching, including a program called "TeachMe: Kindergarten."
The program allows students to read into the device and then replay what they said, which helps them develop language fluency, Coons said.
Some educators see the move into the digital realm, where much of the material is open-source or free, as a way of cutting costs on classroom materials.
But the major costs may not come from implementing new and improved lesson plans but rather in building enough wireless infrastructure to make a tech-dependent classroom feasible.
Dave Holmes, La Center's assistant superintendent, said last year's iPad pilot program stretched the school district's network to capacity. They are currently catching up to demand.
In the long run, though, Holmes sees technology becoming seamlessly integrated into the classroom as a cost saver for school districts.
Ultimately, it will depend on whether teachers support the move. So far, most of them have, he said.
School districts say they want to expand their technology offerings in the future, especially as infrastructure and demand increases.
"We can save a tremendous amount of resources and make them more dynamic when we keep them in a digital form," Holmes said. "But if teachers don't have a shift of mind, you can put all that technology in the hands of kids, and it won't make a difference."