Mixed results using iPads

A study conducted in four California school districts found that students studying Algebra I on an iPad did no better overall than students equipped with a traditional textbook.

The results of the 2010-11 study – the largest to date – disappointed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher that commissioned the research and had expected better outcomes from the new technology. But at the same time, a company executive  said the firm remains undeterred in developing its digital textbooks and was heartened by scores in Riverside Unified, the one district in the study where students using iPads markedly outperformed their peers. In a white paper that the company published, putting a positive spin on the research, the Riverside teachers in the study extolled the software, which it said motivated students to take charge of  their learning.

HMH Fuse, the software that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt developed exclusively for the iPad, comes equipped with many nifty features: more than 300 video tutorials by the textbook’s author, a scratch pad for note-taking, icons that provide links for support, an ability to record notes by voice, and animated views that walk students through sample problems. Students I spoke with last year at a San Francisco middle school that was part of the study said they liked the features and found them helpful. (HMH has since then improved the note-taking capability, after students complained about its limitations.)

The study found no particular iPad feature directly contributed to math improvement, but collectively they kept  students more engaged; there were also indications – though no hard numbers – that students with iPads did more math at home and after class. The students using the software who did outscore other students tended to have better attitudes, said Denis Newman, president of Empirical Education, the Palo Alto firm that did the research.

Riverside Unified students using Houghten Mifflin Harcourt's Algebra program on an iPad scored 9 percentile points higher than students using the company's Algebra textbooks, an impressive difference. Source: research by Empirical Education, Inc. (Click to enlarge.)

Riverside Unified students using Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Algebra program on an iPad scored 9 percentile points higher than students using the company's Algebra textbooks, an impressive difference. Source: research by Empirical Education, Inc. (Click to enlarge.)

But overall scores on the California standardized tests and the publisher’s year-end course exam averaged nearly the same for students using iPads and textbooks, after controlling for pretest and demographic differences – except for Riverside, where there was a 9 point increase in the percentile ranking, a significant amount, for those using an iPad. Put another way, by the district’s analysis, 78  percent of students using iPads scored proficient or above on the Algebra CST; 59 percent scored proficient using textbooks.

78 percent of Riverside students using an iPad to learn Algebra I scored proficient or advanced on the state Algebra CST, compared with 59 percent using a standard texbook by the same publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Source: research by Empirical Education.  (Click to enlarge.)

78 percent of Riverside students at the Amelia Earhart Middle School using an iPad to learn Algebra I scored proficient or advanced on the state Algebra CST, compared with 59 percent using a standard textbook by the same publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Source: Houghton Mifflin. (Click to enlarge.)

Empirical Education did a rigorous analysis, using 11 teachers in six schools across four districts: San Francisco Unified, Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified, and Riverside. They taught a combined 34 classes ­­– 23 sections with textbooks and 11 sections with iPads, chosen at random. Most of the teachers volunteered to be part of the iPad study, but at least one teacher who proved to be a Luddite was assigned to the study. By the end of the year, nine of the 11 teachers said they would continue to use the iPad if given the choice (sorry, but HMH took them back).

Why the big difference with Riverside? Empirical Education found that the two teachers in Riverside used the iPads as a teaching tool much more extensively than the other nine teachers in the study, and the students used the iPads many more minutes per week in class than all but one of the others – a possible connection.

‘Personalized learning devices’

But Riverside Superintendent Rick Miller has another explanation.  The district has been proactive in deploying mobile technologies among its 42,000 students; it has learned that the best strategy is to encourage students to make iPads and tablets their personalized learning devices, as indispensable as cell phones. Allow students to download their own applications, including music, and they’ll be more prone to access math videos and use the technology for learning. Others districts adopted more restrictive policies, at least at first: They reportedly locked up iPads when they weren’t in use and didn’t allow students to take them home.

The other difference, Miller said, is how the teachers used the iPads. Riverside’s two teachers who volunteered for the study weren’t chosen because they were tech-savvy; they hadn’t owned Apple products. But, Miller  said, they were good math teachers who came to recognize opportunities for differentiating instruction and for assigning  videos at home to introduce concepts.

John Sipe, HMH senior vice president and national sales manager, concurred. “In Riverside, teachers were more comfortable from the beginning. They let the technology organically change the classroom structure and front-load instruction.”

In retrospect, said Sipe said, the company should have done a two-year study, because there was a learning curve to the new technology. And it would spend less time at the start of the year teaching teachers on using the device and more time on classroom strategies with the software.

This year, Riverside has expanded its use of HMH’s iPad Algebra program to four classes in the middle school that participated in the study. However, without the free iPads, students have to supply their own, which has led fewer low-income students to participate. (Parents can buy inexpensive insurance to cover theft or damage.) Meanwhile, Riverside is charging ahead with going digital, experimenting with multiple devices and free and proprietary software in multiple subjects.

HMH Fuse sells for $59 retail; districts can buy it for $49 with a six-year use. It’s also now available for  $19 for a use of one year. Miller said that if  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt releases an app that can run on cheaper Android-based tablets, which will soon sell for under $200, then Riverside would deploy the HMH Fuse program much more extensively. Sipe said an Android app might be available this fall.

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