Thousands of tablet computers distributed to middle and high schools have made students more engaged academically and more familiar with mobile technology they will use in college and their careers, Beaufort County School District officials say.
But the devices' effect on student achievement remains unclear.
A survey of district teachers indicated they have noticed an increase in student engagement because of the iPads, which were put in classrooms this school year. The survey says students have shown greater interest in their subjects, completed more work and scored higher on assignments and tests. They are also more focused and better behaved.
"This has taken away all excuses and allows them multiple ways to access content and assignments," one teacher wrote in response to the survey.
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Another wrote, "Our goal should be to prepare our students for the future, and the use of iPads is exposing them to a more realistic environment oriented to the future."
But the district still awaits test data to show whether engagement begets deeper understanding or merely reflects fascination with the technology.
Even if test scores rise, it would be difficult to attribute any improvement solely to iPads, because of other factors, such as new academic initiatives, teaching practices and school leadership, said Chrissy Robinson, the district's director of educational technology.
Nonetheless, district officials say anecdotal results have been so encouraging they plan to expand the initiative next school year.
"Student engagement is critical to student achievement," chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads said. "The more engaged students are, the more they can learn."
The school board voted Tuesday to reallocate $417,000 originally budgeted to repair or replace damaged iPads to instead purchase 830 more of the tablets for H.E. McCracken and Hilton Head Island middle schools. The two schools will join the rest of the district's middle-schoolers in having an iPad assigned to them for the entire school day, instead of returning the tablets after each class in which they are used.
Middle-schoolers will not take the devices home. Only students at Whale Branch Early College High School can do that, as a part of a technology initiative the school has had since it opened.
"Students have been very responsible with their iPads," Ross Hendricks, the district's technology services officer, told school board members.
A total of 7,584 iPads were purchased by the district at $379 apiece, with most deployed in core classes in grades six through nine. The devices were paid for with federal funding and a county property-tax increase.
Twenty devices were damaged this school year at a cost of $1,768, according to the district. Nineteen were lost or stolen and were replaced with spares.
School board members and district officials say it is imperative the district teaches students technology skills.
"This is about using real-world tools to solve real-world problems," Rhoads told the board.
He said district officials plan to compile statistics next school year, comparing test scores among groups of students that receive instruction using iPads and those that do not.
Board chairman Bill Evans said the district needs "to find the quantitative evidence that supports the anecdotal evidence supplied by teachers."
"When I go into classrooms at the middle schools, I see kids more engaged than I have ever seen them before," Evans said. "... Those are the kinds of skills they've got to have to move forward -- that independent learning and teamwork."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.