When Debbie Holland uses iPads in her ninth-grade algebra class, it takes time.
Time to plan a lesson with the device she hadn't used before August.
Time to demonstrate the app students will be using that day.
Time to walk around the classroom to make sure students are on-task and understand the lesson.
Just taking the iPads out of the cart at the beginning of class and stowing them at the end can take 10 minutes -- time she often doesn't have.
The Hilton Head Island High School teacher said she only uses iPads a few times a month, mostly because of the time it takes to deploy and learn to use the devices, which are new to her and many middle and high school classrooms across Beaufort County. Time spent with iPads detracts from preparations for an important state-mandated test at the end of the school year, she said.
Holland's classroom is one of many across the Beaufort County School District using iPads. The district purchased more than 7,500 of the tablet devices and rolled them out this year after the Board of Education approved the $5.6 million program last spring. Most of the money came from the federal government, but some came from a property-tax increase.
Where iPads are used elsewhere, educators say that after an initial learning curve, students are more engaged -- one of the program's goals.
Even Holland acknowledges her students seem more engaged, and Chrissy Robinson, the district's director of educational technology, said teachers and principals have observed the same thing.
But opinion remains divided as to whether engagement begets deeper understanding of subject matter or merely reflects fascination with the technology.
No decisions have yet been made on expanding Beaufort County's program.
"Obviously, we have schools at other levels that are interested," said Ross Hendricks, the district's technology services officer. "But we just want to make sure that what we have in place right now is working."
Little data suggest that iPads improve graduation rates or scores on standardized tests, according to Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
"The assumption is that if kids are caught up in it, they will learn more," said Cuban, who has studied classroom technology extensively. "Yes, it might lead to a boost in academic achievement.
"But it might not."
District officials say it would be hard to attribute a bump in student achievement to iPads, even if a bump occurred.
"There's really no way to measure that data and determine whether that's caused by the iPad itself," Robinson said.
One thing the district is trying to track is how engaged students are in the classroom. That's been done anecdotally, as well as by reviewing data on discipline referrals and the amount of classwork turned in.
The district has also surveyed teachers and students to gauge how often and in what ways iPads have been used.
And this week, Robinson and Hendricks began visiting schools to learn what's seems to be working and what needs to be tweaked.
PUT TO GOOD USE
iPads and other digital technology won't magically transform classrooms, many agree.
And using them properly also requires new teaching methods.
When Jennifer Magiera began using iPads as a classroom teacher in 2010, for example, she said she did it all wrong: She treated the devices as a substitute for pen and paper.
"I was trying to do what I had always done, but insert technology into it," said Magiera, now digital learning coordinator for a network of 25 Chicago public schools.
But the longer Magiera used iPads, the more she realized their potential. In the past, she'd spent hours developing one set of lessons for struggling students and another for those who caught on right away. iPads enabled her to more effectively differentiate her teaching and allow students to move at their own pace. She quickly integrated techniques such as making videos, which made lessons more interesting than simply reading from a book.
In Charleston County, 13 schools began using iPads in 2011. Teachers there made the same mistakes -- then came to the same realizations, technology specialist Kristen Brittingham said.
"We weren't seeing overall a huge change in the way teachers were teaching," she said. "We were seeing more motivation, and everyone was excited. But we didn't see students doing more problem solving, or more creating."
Charleston County's School District is more disciplined now in deploying iPads, Brittingham said. For instance, it no longer rolls them out at entire schools all at once. Instead, a handful of teachers get iPads and training. As they master them, more teachers get them and learn from the "cadre of experts."
The district plans to introduce iPads in 17 more schools next year.
Riverview Charter School in Beaufort has had an iPad program for middle school students since 2011, and every class incorporates them into the curriculum, according to Tina Daubert, a language arts teacher.
Daubert noted two advantages to using iPads: They make it easier to tailor instruction to students' needs and they provide quick feedback.
In fact, she said, she no longer worries about a struggling student escaping her attention.
What's more, lessons are no longer "about jamming information down their throat," Daubert said. "It's about active participation, and they draw on each other. ... It's more student-driven.
"I could never go back to the way things were."
Some Beaufort County teachers already feel the same way. Beaufort Middle School math teacher Davina Walker and Hilton Head Island High School social studies teacher Chris Lewis say they use the devices every day.
"I try to have them in their hands as often as possible," Lewis said. "It's such a great resource and tool."
Lewis said iPads have allowed him to provide one student with remedial instruction and another with more challenging subject matter simultaneously.
"There's no sitting still," Lewis said. "If you're done with something, it's, 'Well, here's the next step.' "
Teachers haven't always had such flexibility, Robinson said. They had to make separate lesson plans and spend more time copying and organizing materials. Now, a single app can allow students to work at a different levels, minimizing their anxiety about being ahead or behind.
Robinson said students gravitate to the iPad more than to traditional teaching methods.
"There's evidence that the kids in the classroom now are not the same as the kids in classroom five, 10, or 20 years ago," she said. "They have increasing access to technology at home, and access to smartphones, video games, their connection with each other online. If we don't adapt the way we teach and the tools we teach with, it will be harder and hard to reach them."
Do iPads improve academic performance?
Brittingham pointed to a Charleston kindergarten whose students have consistently read at or above grading level since iPads were introduced.
At Riverview, test scores haven't been charted, according to Daubert and technology integrator Erica Freeman. Even if they had, it would be difficult to attribute any improvement solely to iPads, because other factors could affect test performance.
"We want our children to be engaged, we want to them to use technology responsibly, we want them to be active participants in their learning," Freeman said. "Yes, that's probably going to have a trickle down effect on our scores. ... But the iPads weren't implemented with that goal in mind."
Few studies have been done of iPad use in classrooms, and fewer draw conclusions about the device's effects, Cuban said. Data is scant because iPads have been used in classrooms for only about two years. Indeed, Apple didn't even introduce the device until 2010.
One study done in Auburn, Maine, concluded the devices boosted literacy in kindergartners. But that study, released in February, only compared the scores of students selected at random and taught with iPads to the scores of those who weren't, Cuban said. There was no accounting for who taught them, socioeconomic factors, or other factors that could have affected their performance.
Cuban worries that even if students who use iPads are more engaged, that may be short-lived.
"People confuse engagement with the novelty effect," he said. "That can last anywhere from a few months to maybe a year, but it wears off."
When the Beaufort County School District pitched its iPad program to the school board, it was touted as a way to prepare students for college and careers, and a way to keep struggling students interested long enough to graduate.
Current board chairman Bill Evans said he hopes to see those two benefits in the long term.
Cuban, the Stanford professor, said there's currently little evidence indicating iPads will make such a difference, but that typically doesn't stop school districts from launching iPad programs.
"We live in a culture where technology is good. It's better than apple pie," he said. School boards tend to OK the programs out of worry that their schools won't be cutting edge, he said.
"Otherwise, they'll be seen as a dinosaur," he said. "It's keeping up with the Joneses."
That's not why the Beaufort County school board started its iPad program, Evans said.
"I think we looked at what was going on around us, and the technology (the district) was already using," he said. "This just seemed like a natural extension of that.
"My only motivation was instructional improvement, and making sure our kids have 21st century skills."
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.