Reaching for The Stars, Through The Cloud

Having already replaced all our text books with iPad texts (we see text books going the way of 8-track tapes in every district, very quickly) the next logical phase of future-proofing Catholic education at Kennedy was bringing all the lessons online.

iPhone & iPad set against a CloudWhy push education “into the cloud”? Don’t students and administrators have enough to worry about without adding bandwidth and connectivity issues into the equation?

I feel that Catholic educators must go online because that is where the students are living. From cradle to career, young people are communicating, working, playing and killing time online. In fact, the BBC just announced that they are investing £34 million into expanding their digital programming because their research has shown British youth are being “shaped and defined” by what they experience on American online media such as Facebook and Netflix.

Like the BBC, Catholic high school education must reinvent itself online if we are to keep pace with all the distraction vying for young people’s attention. We may not be able to prevent students from keeping their noses buried in a smartphone or tablet, but we can ensure that their education is no more clicks away than YouTube.

Our experience is that teachers, after a brief period of adjustment, find that Blackboard and other online lesson tools we use at Kennedy make them more productive. Beyond the lack of papers to shuffle, they are able to link to lectures – current and archived – and other resources that add a new hypertextual component to otherwise static and linear lessons. Also, a cloud-based curriculum allows for nimbleness and quick pivots over the course of a semester.

When the lessons are online, parents become part of the conversation in real time. As with PowerSchool, the app which Kennedy parents can use to keep abreast of their child’s grades on a daily basis, parents’ access to Blackboard grants them a glimpse into not only what their children are learning, but how they are being taught.

Students on iPads in Kennedy Library

The most prevalent criticism of online lessons and learning is that students may somehow suffer from the lack of interpersonal activity. We feel that our combination of in-class instruction and cloud-based homework and follow-through takes the wind from the sails of whatever merit that argument had. Plus, the research is all going in our direction.

The U.S. Department of Education published a report, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Its conclusion could not make matters more clear: “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” The government, too, found that the “blended” method, combining virtual and real-life classrooms, was most effective.

We have also noticed that some of the more socially awkward students who might not raise a hand in class will speak out in online forums There is a time and place when social skills should be taught, but I would submit that first period trigonometry class need not be among them.

Kennedy Catholic has just placed the last brick in the online bridge, with our Fine Arts department’s adoption of the SmartMusic app. Music students – both vocal and instrumental – are assigned a section of music as homework, and the app allows them to record their work and submit it to their music teachers as if it were just another page of algebra problems. The program also provides its own evaluation, letting the students know if they failed to hit the correct notes. Teachers decide, lesson by lesson, how many tries their students are allowed for each assignment to get it right.

Perhaps best of all, cloud-based coursework is kryptonite to the nemesis of every educator in northern Westchester County: snow. No matter how deep it is piled up outside, homework can still be assigned and turned in online!

The Paperless Advantage

At Kennedy Catholic, we spend a good deal of time thinking about technology, and it’s not just because we field two championship robotics teams. All of our classrooms are paperless, and all of our lessons are online. Kennedy students access their lessons through school-provided iPads.

Kennedy Catholic Student Using iPad in ClassroomWhen Kennedy first made the decision to drop text books in favor of iPads in 2012, we had a hunch we were in the vanguard of a brilliant movement in education. Now, over 7 years after Apple’s release of the tablets, there is quite a bit of empirical data that shows our hunch was correct.

Before closing up shop in 2014, the Pearson Foundation had done two surveys regarding tablets in the classroom. They learned that 86 percent of students using iPads believed the device helped them with their studies. Seventy-six percent of the users felt they performed better in class. This jived with an Oklahoma State study of college-age students that found 75 percent of students surveyed agreed that their iPad made learning a better experience. A study by text book publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt backed up those impressions, indicating that students using iPads saw their math test scores increase 20 percent in one year compared to students using traditional textbooks.

What’s the science behind these stats? Our experience is that working on a tablet draws students into the lessons more deeply. It adds a tactile component to the learning that mere textbooks cannot match. Plus, most students enjoy working on the iPads, so they are engaged, and their enthusiasm is contagious and spreads to those students who are initially wary.

Classroom of Kennedy Catholic Students All Using iPadsWe have also found that, being a private Catholic school, we have less difficulty controlling the culture and so can avoid the problems reported by some of the early adopter public schools. In the Kennedy environment, we are better able to implement filters, manage bandwidth, and minimize distraction.

Of course, our gym has been more crowded since we switched to iPads as our scholar-athletes need to find another way to build biceps, absent carrying around those towers of text books, but that’s a “happy problem”…