Debra Redpath’s students in the Communications classroom at Liberty Elementary School have a new tool to process everything from math facts to conversation skills: 13 iPads, one for each student.
Tim Haag, the district’s curriculum/technology resource teacher, helped the Albany district obtain a grant of nearly $10,000 to provide the portable tablet computers. On Jan. 26, he brought them to the classroom for the first time and showed the children how they worked.
“Hey, I found a fraction thing on math!” exclaimed Eric Ames, 10, fingers tracing the screen as he paged through the applications.
“I know! Isn’t that cool?” Redpath told him. “Just about everything you can imagine, we have on there.”
Redpath had been hearing a lot about the effectiveness of tablet computers in working with children with autism. She asked Haag to look into grant possibilities.
Haag found one through the CenturyLink Foundation that paid for the iPads (including a 14th, for Redpath), headphones, cases, stands, a wireless hard drive and several applications Redpath said she hoped will be particularly effective for children with special needs.
Autism is a developmental disability that takes many different forms but typically can make it difficult for children to interact with others. About 50 of the 500-some special needs elementary students in the Greater Albany Public Schools district have been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder as the primary disability.
Some students with autism struggle with reading; have trouble with fine motor skills, which makes writing a challenge; and may require lots of repetition to master particular skills.
Amost all, however, are highly visual, which makes the colorful graphics and touchpad interface of a tablet computer a perfect match for their learning style, Redpath said. An iPad can hit the challenges in ways that create interest and keep students on task.
Academics are important, but children with autism also have a critical need for direct social skills instruction that affects everything they do, Redpath said.
Children with autism don’t automatically understand social rules about sharing, taking turns and seeing another’s point of view. In Redpath’s classroom, they practice conversational skills, being patient, taking direction, showing respect, receiving constructive criticism, and using calming strategies when angry or out of control.
“There are many more skills that we teach constantly, but these are the skills that are so necessary to get along in the world,” Redpath said. “I teach them that even if they are really smart at a job, if they don’t have social smarts they won’t keep the job.”
Redpath plans to develop “social stories” with the iPad that provide very specific teaching around a certain difficulty: “Keeping Your Sealtbelt on in the Car,” for instance. Another possible lesson involves video modeling, an option for students who continue to struggle with expressive language.
If nothing else, a tablet computer is a powerful motivator, Redpath said. Work first, then iPad.
Other mid-valley classrooms also are experimenting with iPads in with their special needs classrooms. In Corvallis, Tim Dillon’s “Happiness Club” at Hoover Elementary uses the tablet technology to teach social lessons to students in the learning resource center. In Alsea, the whole community joined forces to purchase an iPad for a kindergartner with Down syndrome.
With more than half a million apps available for purchase, it’s easy for educators to tailor them to students’ individual learning needs, Dillon said.
“What the device allows us to do is to take very complex ideas and make them understandable with basic, user-friendly tools,” he said. “It’s easy to use and is compatible with other technologies such as our Smart Board.”
But while intriguing, tablet computers aren’t necessarily a magic bullet.
At $499 for a student model, an iPad still costs almost twice as much as a desktop computer, pointed out Ryan Mattingly, Albany’s director of special services. Wireless connectivity isn’t a given everywhere in the district. And the technology is still new and largely unproven.
“We want to be careful about investing too much money into something that may just end up being a fancy toy,” he said.
Redpath’s grant requires her to submit an online report by June 30 detailing how the iPads helped her meet her classroom goals: how much longer students were able to stay on task, whether they were able to work more independently, whether they could complete tasks with less frustration.
“We do have to assess the successfulness as part of the grant, and we want to anyway,” she said.