Education

Digital textbooks a worthwhile frustration, Miami-Dade teachers say

Miami Beach Senior High ninth graders work by the glow of electronic tablets in Nadia Zananiri's World History class on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.
Miami Beach Senior High ninth graders work by the glow of electronic tablets in Nadia Zananiri's World History class on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

No one is putting pen to paper in Nadia Zananiri’s ninth-grade world history class.

Instead, every student is hunched over the glowing screen of a digital tablet or staring into a laptop display. One is even plugging away on his phone.

A handful of textbooks sit in baskets underneath students’ seats, ignored and unopened.

It may not look like it, but the students are all busy at work. Online, they’re typing up assignments about the crops, animals and diseases European explorers brought with them to the New World.

This is what school work looks like now that Miami-Dade County schools has launched an ambitious program to get portable, digital devices into the hands of all 350,000 students in the district — part of a state mandate to bring more technology into classrooms.

Miami-Dade’s program ramped up this year, when about 30,000 seventh- and ninth-graders were handed brand new HP tablets instead of textbooks.

Three months into the school year, the consensus seems to be the tablets are great — when they work.

“"It’s a little bit of a love-hate relationship,” said Zananiri, who teaches at Miami Beach Senior High.

At best, the tablets allow teachers to get creative with their lesson plans, and help students discover new ideas while working more efficiently.

“I enjoy using my tablet,” said ninth-grader Daniel Marrero. “It’s faster than writing for a lot of things.”

At worst, teachers can’t control what kids are up to, poor Internet connections cost students time and, sometimes, the electronic textbooks simply don’t work.

“I think the potential is there, and I really see what the superintendent’s plan is — but they’ve got to get some of these things straightened out,” said Brian Firtell, a seventh-grade teacher at Lawton Chiles Middle in Hialeah.

The topic of tablets in education is a sensitive one. A bungled, billion-dollar roll out of iPads for students in California recently contributed to the ouster of the superintendent there.

Miami-Dade’s program has run comparatively smoothly. But there have been kinks.

“This is a massive enterprise,” said Miami-Dade’s chief academic officer, Marie Izquierdo. “We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

At Lawton Chiles, the tablets didn’t arrive in classrooms until the second day of school. At Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School in the North Miami Beach area, there weren’t enough to go around. And some students are still waiting for their devices because they haven’t paid the required fee — between $5 and $20, depending on family income — or haven’t returned a signed rental agreement.

District officials let individual schools decide the best way to distribute tablets. At many schools, the responsibility has fallen on time-pressed teachers.

The biggest frustration, though, has been a lack of training, teachers say.

“It was too rushed,” said Daniel Francia, who teaches at Hialeah-Miami Lakes high. He says he went to six training sessions.

“They threw a lot at us,” said Firtell. “Bottom line was, I pretty much had to try to remember what was going on, and then try to figure it out myself.”

It was especially tough for Zananiri, who was away on maternity leave as the program began to roll out. She says she “begged” for training once she returned to work.

“So I got two days of training. We only got about 40 minutes each on each software… it was a little too short,” she said.

The district counters that at least 18 training opportunities were offered specifically for using the mobile devices. Some had to be canceled because not enough teachers signed up. The district paid stipends for some sessions, and others were held on teacher workdays. But “the great majority” were unpaid, said Sylvia Diaz, an assistant superintendent who has been heading the technology push for Dade schools.

“We realize that’s something some of the teachers have been concerned about,” she said.

Other issues are technological. Sometimes students are asked for a code to access their textbook, but the district hasn’t provided one. Other times, the app from which students can access the online book disappears. Reminding students to charge their tablets before class can seem impossible, and there aren’t enough electrical outlets for everyone to plug in.

The district has yet to install a program that lets teachers monitor and control each student’s Internet access. While school access is heavily filtered to avoid inappropriate material, teachers were promised control at a glance and with the push of a button.

Tops among technology complaints, though: spotty wireless connections.

“Trying to get onto the network has been a daunting test,” Francia said. “That really slows down what you need to be doing in the classroom. Sometimes if I can — I’ve got eight books — I grab one of them.”

Diaz, the assistant superintendent, said the district has already beefed up WiFi at many schools, and more capacity is being added. The district manages 20,000 access points and 45 million square feet of wireless coverage.

“With the introduction of all these new devices with the opening of schools, we are finding — and this is absolutely typical of wireless — where things have to be tweaked,” she said.

While some teachers have reportedly given up on the tablets, many are forgiving of the shortcomings and excited about the technology.

“The things are neat that you can do with it,” said Judi Dubowski, who teaches at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning. “You can poll, and you can present questions with their phones. There’s all kinds of things.”

Zananiri said going digital has allowed her to “get more creative” and Firtell likes to let students explore other viewpoints rather than being confined to the textbook author’s take on history.

“I love the online quiz,” Francia said.

He added: “It’s like anything else: There will be hiccups the first year, but eventually we’ll get it down. I see the merits.”

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