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Educators, administrators, techies and entrepreneurs descended upon Austin, Texas for the 2nd annual South by Southwest Education conference (SXSWedu) on March 6th. The opening day’s sessions spanned multiple panels on e-textbooks and the spread of open education resources (OERs), free content that can be used and shared by teachers and students. Other sessions covered the role of technology in higher education and the importance of infusing art into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curricula to create STEAM, which Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist called “the first example where an acronym means more than bureaucratic laziness.”

In the vein of the more established SXSW Interactive conference, SXSWedu is aiming to cover innovations in the education space that are having an impact on how we teach and learn.

So it seemed fitting that in one afternoon session on a one-to-one iPad program at West Lake High School just outside Austin, questions came as much through Twitter as they did from the microphone in the aisle, which went unused for much of the Q&A period.

As iPads turn up in more and more classrooms, questions remain about how best to use them to transform teaching and learning.

During the session, Carl Hooker, West Lake’s instructional technology director, explained how the school went about adopting a one-to-one iPad program for its 1600 students. He admitted that his teachers didn’t have enough time to be trained on how best to use the iPads, as they only got them a few weeks before the school year, and that some teachers have been slower to incorporate them into their lessons.

“It’s hard for some because it’s giving up control of the classroom to the kids in a lot of ways,” Hooker says.

Training at West Lake takes place at “Lunch Learns” and “Appy Hours,” where teachers can learn about one or two new apps at a time. They have set up a “Juice Bar,” where teachers and students with questions about or problems with their iPads can receive help.

Hooker says one of the biggest challenges is not to use iPads simply as substitutes for analog notebooks and textbooks, as he said they often can be, but rather to use them for what he sees as their value in creating multimedia learning opportunities. He highlighted how a science class was using an app that could identify a variety of leaves to explore students’ backyards and learn about different plants. Hooker also said that using iPads saves his school money on things like digital cameras and software (e.g., Smart Slate, which allows teachers to control their computers remotely and which can be replaced with a $1.99 app called Remote View).

“That kind of un-tethering for teachers is actually really important,” Hooker says.

But iPad technology doesn’t always make things run more smoothly. Brad Smith, a geometry and stats teacher at West Lake, explained how cloud-based services like DropBox can actually complicate organizing student work because students have too much access to the teacher’s account and can do things like erase other students’ work and change names or alter content. Smith also said that using iPads for assessment wasn’t ideal yet because students have access to the Internet and the ability to email and instant-message and to take screen shots, which they can then share with classmates who may be taking the same test later in the day.

High-school senior Steven Wilbanks, though, is thrilled with his iPad. He shared how he uses Face Time, an app that lets you video-chat with others, to collaborate with classmates at a school in South Korea to which West Lake sends students every year. Wilbanks also said he’s able to annotate and search notes and texts, and says he has developed an app in his computer science class.

While there are still many hiccups with using iPads in classrooms, districts and schools seem to be learning how to use the device and the new apps that are created every day to improve teaching and learning. At least Wilbanks is convinced.

“This is how I learn now,” Wilbanks says. “It’s hard to remember what school was like before it.”

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Nick Pandolfo writes for The Hechinger Report. A native of New York City, he majored in education at Eugene Lang College and later taught ESL for four years in New York, China and South Korea. Before entering...

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