LEXINGTON, S.C. (AP) — All high school students in Lexington 1 school district will soon receive their own iPad to use in class and wherever else they want as officials seek to better prepare students for the technological world.
For those who ask why, Superintendent Karen Woodward responds, "My question would be, 'Why not?'"
"The world is more global. The world is more electronic," said Woodward, who leads a district of more than 22,000 students in rural areas and affluent suburbs west of Columbia. "Students have to have digital competence, and to be competent, you have to have access. Using current-day technology should be a normal part of what we do. We need to close the gap between schools, education and the real world."
The hope is that the flat tablets allow for classroom lessons and homework assignments that better engage and motivate students, as well as help students work on their own, at their own pace. Plus, providing all students with technology at their fingertips helps bridge the socioeconomic gaps, Woodward said.
"It's an equalizer. There's no difference in learning advantage from the poorest to the most affluent. The global world opens up to all students," she said, adding that students who lack access to reading material at home will be able to download e-books. "We believe you should have learning available anytime, anywhere."
Lexington 1 isn't the only South Carolina school district giving digital devices to students.
In Charleston County, a pilot iPad program in several elementary classrooms was expanded this fall to two elementary schools and a middle school, though those iPads don't leave the school. The district hopes to expand distribution in January to students in three of its high-poverty high schools, who will be able to take their iPads home. In Richland 2, students at a new middle school each received an iPad when classes started, and another middle school plans to hand out Android tablets next month.
It's a national trend. Apple officials say nearly 1,000 K-12 schools have an iPad "one-to-one" program, meaning that at a minimum, every student in a class gets an iPad rather than a certain number per teacher or school.
But Lexington 1's "one-to-one" distribution is the state's most ambitious so far. During the week of Nov. 7, more than 6,600 iPads will be handed out to students. Teachers in all four high schools received theirs in August, giving them some time to research apps and figure out how they'll use them in class.
At an informational session at Lexington High on Thursday for students and parents, two math teachers told a reporter they're still not sure. But others were eager to put the iPads to use. The school's foreign language teachers, for example, said students will be downloading foreign newspapers, news broadcasts and language tutorials, as well as recording and listening to themselves — helping them better speak and understand a new language.
"This is the best thing ever," said Spanish teacher Caroline Hayes, who grew up in Panama. "This tool will bridge a lot of gaps."
Lexington 1 has spent $3.4 million on 7,200 iPads, at $479 each, funded by a bond referendum that voters approved in 2008, which included $15 million for nonspecific technology upgrades. In a pilot program last year, every student at Gilbert High received a laptop. The iPad 2 was chosen for the expansion because of its apps, portability, and ease of use, Woodward said.
"That size is the technology of the future," she said.
For now, the iPads won't replace heavy textbooks. That will start next school year, said Lexington High Principal Melissa Rawl.
Instead, educators say, the iPads will supplement classroom learning, and allow students to take notes, do research, and transmit assignments electronically. The state's approval process for textbooks, even digital ones, involves a lengthy review process, though many approved textbooks already are available online.
But the real benefit comes not in simply moving text from a book to a screen, but providing students an interactive learning tool, said John Sipe, vice president of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The publisher's HMH Fuse algebra and geometry programs, among the first specifically for iPads, includes graphing calculators and hundreds of short, pop-up videos throughout the text. Students can tap on it and hear a professor explain the lesson as many times as they need.
"We're absolutely embracing the move from print to digital," Sipe said. "For some learners, it's not just replacing print, it's about connecting on a visceral level. ... We wanted to show that when you presented it in a new environment, you can reimagine what a textbook can do."
Beyond literally taking weight off of students' backs, digital textbooks are also cheaper, saving districts money after the initial up-front cost of the device. Sipe said his company charges at least 30 percent less for digital versions that eliminate their costs of printing, binding and shipping.
Lexington High parent Dan Griffin said he can't see a downside to the iPad distribution.
"I think it's an amazing opportunity when you consider the pace of change," he said, noting he travels the country training adults in computer skills. Learning those skills now gives his children an advantage, he said.
His daughter, 14-year-old freshman Meredith Griffin, looked at a reporter with a wide-eyed grin.
"I like it a lot!" she said, adding she has an iPod and family laptop at home, but can't wait to get a device of her own.
Fifteen-year-old Aundreas Scott said he doesn't have any computer at home now, and he hopes the iPad will help him improve his grades. However, he's disappointed that he will not be able to access Facebook on the school's iPad.
All but a handful of parents at Thursday's session opted to pay $50 for an insurance policy to replace a damaged or lost device. Otherwise, they must pay for a replacement. Parents said the insurance, which they can pay in installments, was a no-brainer.
Freshman Tucker Roche, 14, said with as many cell phones as he's lost, he almost expects to lose the iPad too.
He may surprise himself. In Gilbert High's pilot program, only 23 of 900 laptops had to be replaced. Officials said students were surprisingly responsible with the devices. And in other pilot programs across the country, the loss rate of iPads is far less than that of textbooks.
At the end of the school year, students must turn in their iPads, which will be inspected and updated over the summer.
Woodward said the district expects to replace the devices on a four-year cycle. At that point, younger students may get the high schoolers' hand-me-downs.