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Va. Releases First 'Beyond Textbooks' Report

The Virginia Department of Education last week released a report evaluating the first year of the state's Beyond Textbooks iPad initiative, which we featured in our brand new Digital Directions issue.

The project, which commenced at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, equipped 4th, 7th, and 9th grade classrooms in four communities with a 1-to-1 set of iPad tablet devices, complete with apps created to correspond with their social studies textbooks.

The report, which provides mainly qualitative analysis through interviews of students and teachers, makes what may be expected conclusions about the usefulness of the devices in the classroom. Both teachers and students reported increased engagement and student independence, as well as increased freedom for teachers to become facilitators rather than lecturers.

The more interesting early observations may be on the app design side. The willingness of app makers to adjust products based on feedback highlighted the importance of pilot testing in any development phase, the report said. And the major drop off in feedback after second and third iterations of the apps showed app makers could quite quickly and acutely respond to user concerns with one try.

(In exchange for equipping and refining the apps free of charge, the app makers received constant feedback from teachers and other educators to help refine their products.)

The report declined to offer concrete estimates at potential cost savings that could come from replacing textbooks with iPads or other tools, though exploring how to reduce costs is one of the stated purposes of the project. And it noted that such an endeavor isn't feasible until broadband wireless access is nearly a guaranteed right for every child (something the FCC has been working on).

No plans have been announced yet for year two of the Beyond Textbooks initiative, but the project is expected to continue during the next school year.

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