METHUEN — Ninth-grader Michael Jackson tapped at the iPad in front of him, writing an explanation for his 12 classmates of what mofongo is.
The exercise was for students to create a short slide show describing what one kind of food they would want if they were stranded on a desert island. Jackson, a native of Puerto Rico, found a picture of a mofongo, pasted it on a slide and sent it to a large flat-screen TV at the front of the classroom.
“It’s a plantain, and it’s fried,” he explained to his classmates. On the slide, he typed a brief explanation below the word. Mofongo, he said, is a Puerto Rican dish, where a green plantain is mashed and shaped into a bowl and deep fried. It is filled with a broth and anything from beef to shrimp to vegetables.
Teacher Matt Howshan said the iPad tablet computers were introduced this year into his program, which is called Horizon and intervenes with students at high risk of dropping out in school. He said they have kept a group of students who have had past issues with grades and attendance coming to class daily. One of the key factors, according to the students, is most of the work is done as a group, where all the kids participate at once on the iPads and on screen, rather than working individually from a notebook while a teacher lectures.
Students said the collaboration, whether one student is creating a slide or another is giving a presentation on a prominent Italian Renaissance figure, means they often create projects together and interact on the iPads during and after class.
“Here, everyone is in the conversation and in-depth with what’s going on,” said ninth grader James Kane.
The iPads, which stay in Howshan’s classroom, are connected to the Internet through the school’s wireless network. The network has security features to block inappropriate content, and opens up class assignments, communication and notes to the web so the kids can access their work at home.
“It takes away the excuse that they lost their assignment,” Howshan said.
One app, called Edmodo, is a social site like Facebook that is designed specifically for education. It can be configured so only certain people can interact in a group, and it allows parents to be engaged with the teacher and to see assignments and ask questions. Students can email notes and presentations, and can ask the teacher a question after school hours.
Textbooks on the iPad incorporate video segments that illustrate a given point in the text, and include audio files and interactive features that link to videos and other resources on the Internet.
“Those textbooks are what the future is,” Howshan said. “It’s more innovative.”
Associate Principal Maria McLaughlin, who oversees the Horizon program, said she typically had to keep an eye on Horizon students to make sure they show up for class and stay out of trouble. “But I don’t see (these students) at all, and that’s what’s shocking,” she said.
The ninth grade campus, which is at the old Central School while the high school renovation project is ongoing, has a secure wireless network that allows all its students and teachers to use iPads and smaller iPod Touch devices in class. There are about 120 iPads, divided up onto four carts, at the ninth grade campus, and the teachers share the carts throughout the day.
Ed Lussier, an education technology specialist at the high school, said eventually the district wants to expand the wireless capabilities of each school so each student can have an iPad she will use throughout the day. When the high school project is complete, the new building will have expanded wireless capability. In all, the district has about 200 iPads.
High school Associate Principal Richard Barden introduced iPads into his 12-day MCAS support program. Those devices were purchased with a grant.
The Horizons program is one example of how iPads and other devices for individuals can change education in the classroom to a much greater degree than other recent technological additions. “It’s not a substitute, this is redesigning the way they’re teaching, and they’re excited,” Lussier said.
In the last decade, many classrooms added a Smart Board, which is a large electronic device at the front of the room and combines the functions of video or overhead projectors and a chalkboard. But it still stands at the front of the room while most or all of the students watch.
iPads, on the other hand, are used individually by the students while at the same time allowing the entire class, including the teacher, to participate.
“Communication is one of the larger goals, one of the ‘four-Cs,” McLaughlin said. The other C’s are collaboration, creative thinking and critical thinking.
Working with iPads in class develops technology skills a lot of kids are learning elsewhere, preparing them for higher education or the workforce, officials and students said. At the same time, Howshan and Lussier said the students have gotten more creative with their assignments and projects by working with a technology platform most of them are just as comfortable with as their teachers.
This fiscal year, the School Department budgeted $748,520 for technology expenses, including hardware like computers and iPads, software, maintenance, networking, Internet service, and technology employee salaries.
Superintendent Judith Scannell said about $7,600 has been spent on iPads over the last two years, with about 15 percent of that funding coming from grants.
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