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iPads are key to teaching some students, educators say

Christine Dunbar works with Parkwood Elementary students Jeffrey Coe and Shahiira Harrison on phonemic awareness skills using a tic-tac-toe game on the iPad.
Faye Rasmussen
Shoreline School Distict
Christine Dunbar works with Parkwood Elementary students Jeffrey Coe and Shahiira Harrison on phonemic awareness skills using a tic-tac-toe game on the iPad.

iPads are probably on a lot of people’s wish lists this holiday season, including teachers. Educators say the tablet devices allow them to reach students with learning difficulties in ways they’ve never been able to before. 

In her 14 years as a speech pathologist, Christine Dunbar has tried all sorts of technology to help special education students in Shoreline – everything from pen and paper to specially designed electronics. Still, she says it could be a struggle to breakthrough to some kids. 

Then she discovered the iPad. 

Turning on a new way to teach

“Honestly, I went and told my principal after about a week that I thought I had a magic wand,” she says.

One of the students her new powers allowed her to reach was an autistic third grader who usually only babbled random words. That changed after they did a vocabulary task on the iPad.

“The next time I came to his class, he turned to me and said, ‘Dunbar, you bring your big phone,’ which was the longest sentence I’d ever heard him say, the first time he was really initiating asking me a question,” she recalls. “He wanted to know, was the iPad going to be part of our day again today? That just completely floored me.”

(This video describes the many uses for special education students)

Dunbar’s not the only one who’s finding success using this type of device.

Technology gaining popularity

The majority of schools in the state are now experimenting with some form of touch-screen technology, be it the Kindle Fire, smartphone, or iTouch, according to Conn McQuinn, director of the Puget Sound Educational Service District’s technology support center. He says some schools are even trading in their laptops. 

He set out to decode the iPad phenomenon. What he found is:

  • They're easy to use. Even kids who can’t type can still manipulate objects with their fingers.
  • They hold a charge longer and boot up faster than most laptops, giving teachers more time and flexibility for lessons.
  • They can remove the stigma students face when they need specialized learning aids.

But the real power could be that they let kids work at their own pace and track how they’re doing. That way teachers know when students need help, even if they don’t ask.
Should all teachers get Apples?

McQuinn said that doesn’t mean schools should run out and buy a bunch of iPads

“I don’t think the devices themselves change education,” he says. “It’s what we do with the devices. And we have to be really intentional about taking advantage of what they can do better and let us do more powerfully and more effectively as teachers and students. And also when to turn them off.”

He also says a downside of the equipment is that since it wasn’t developed for educational purposes, it can be cumbersome for teachers to install software and manage customization.

Regardless, he says the technology is here to stay. In fact, within a few years, he predicts these machines will be so cheap they’ll be in every student’s hands.

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.