Virginia using iPads to teach social studies


Pearson's new Social Studies app for Virginia schools.
Pearson's new social studies app for Virginia schools


In a huge step forward for K-12 education’s move toward an all-digital curriculum, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), in collaboration with education publishing giant Pearson, is implementing a pilot program that puts fourth, seventh, and ninth grade social studies curriculum on an iPad.

Supporters say this revolutionary education technology program will test whether students can better acquire knowledge of a subject if instruction caters to different learning styles.

The idea for Pearson to provide an entire social studies curriculum via the iPad was part of the VDOE’s “Beyond Textbooks” initiative, which is designed to “explore the potential of wireless technology and digital textbooks to enhance teaching and learning.” The initiative is supported by a grant from the governor’s Productivity Investment Fund, along with products and services donated by multiple private-sector partners, including textbook publishers and software developers.

The VDOE says it analyzed the commonwealth’s history/social science standards of learning (SOL) assessment data to identify elementary, middle, and high school history content with corresponding achievement levels that suggest a need for additional instructional resources and tools. School divisions were chosen to take part in the program based on their ability to provide the necessary infrastructure and support, as well as their existing relationships with participating textbook publishers.

Besides measuring simple student engagement, Beyond Textbooks also includes a research component to measure the impact of the initiative on classroom instruction. Researchers from Radford University will interview teachers, administrators, and students in the participating schools about how the use of digital textbooks affects teaching and learning.

“The experiences of students and teachers will be evaluated, and the knowledge gained will help policy makers, educators, and our private-sector partners better understand the potential instructional uses of interactive digital media and wireless technology,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright as she announced the Beyond Textbooks initiative during a news conference at Rich Acres Elementary School in Virginia’s Henry County. “We will learn what works in the classroom and build on that as our schools move beyond traditional textbooks.”

Fourth-grade students at Rich Acres and Sanville elementary schools in Henry County and Drew Model School in Arlington County will use iPads to learn and interact with Jamestown-related content adapted from Our Virginia: Past and Present, published by Five Ponds Press. Digital content from selected chapters of the textbook was developed by Victory Productions using newly developed software donated by Adobe.

Students at the three elementary schools also will create multimedia projects on their iPads using content from the digital library of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation on a platform developed by web software developer MashON.

Middle school students at Achievable Dream Middle School and Achievable Dream High School in Newport News and Pulaski Middle School in Pulaski County will use what Pearson says is the nation’s first fully integrated digital social studies curriculum. The content, apps, and assessments are based on Pearson’s America: History of our Nation, 1865 to Present and were developed specifically for the iPad.


Students test-drive the apps on the iPad. Photo courtesy of Pearson.
Students test-drive the apps on the iPad. (Photo courtesy of Pearson)


Ninth-grade students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Achievable Dream and Menchville high schools in Newport News, and Pulaski County High School also will leave their history textbooks in their lockers as they log on to a similar program that Pearson has created based on its World History: Volume I textbook.

Advanced Placement (AP) biology students enrolled in Virtual Virginia, VDOE’s online learning program, also are participating in Beyond Textbooks. One group will use iPads with an interactive version of the AP biology textbook developed by Inkling, a Silicon Valley software developer, in cooperation with McGraw-Hill Education. The remaining students will rely on traditional textbooks and web-based resources.

The 230 iPads that will be used by Virginia students were purchased through a $120,000 grant from the governor’s Productivity Investment Fund. Pearson, Five Ponds Press, Victory Productions, Adobe, MashON, McGraw-Hill, and Inkling are providing their digital content, platforms, and applications at no cost to VDOE and the participating school divisions.

Way of the future

According to Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson K-12, VDOE’s venture into digital curriculum is a move that many other districts across the U.S. are attempting.

“We’ve reached the tipping point, and the only question now is how rapidly the conversion will happen,” Cohen said.

Pearson, which has created more than 100 mobile apps for education, says its line of products has had a technological component to them for the last five years. Currently, any one of Pearson’s programs can be used without the use of textbooks.

Pearson’s iPad apps for the VDOE are derived from the company’s Virginia editions of America: History of our Nation (for 7th grade) and World History: Volume I (for 9th grade). The iPad program includes three components: An app with interactive learning games that introduce concepts to students through puzzles and fast-action challenges; eText on an iPad, where students access the social studies curriculum and create their own individualized texts; and a personalized assessment with remediation app for students to review and self-test.

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Cohen said he believes the apps will be successful because the technology allows students to learn how they want to. See the apps here.

“With the iPad, or any technology like it, students can learn visually, they can learn through audio, they can touch, or it can be an easier way to have notecards. It manages different learning styles and provides for a complex learning environment that supports retention and critical thinking,” he said.

Cohen said the program also can help teachers with their time management. Pearson conducted an initial study of its online math program, and findings showed that teachers have twice as much time to work with students on a personal basis when using the math program that syncs with interactive whiteboards and smart devices.

“What we need to remember as a developer is that you can have great curriculum and great technology, but the teacher will also be the key instrument in student success. If [teachers] can use our digital curriculum and have more time to help students, then we know it’s a good product,” he said.

Cohen acknowledged there isn’t much research available on student outcomes from using digital curriculum, but he said VDOE and Radford University’s study of the iPad pilot will be the first step to knowing more about the technology.

He also said he believes the state potentially could save money by moving to an all-digital curriculum.

“The jury’s still out on the cost savings that going digital versus all paper provides, considering maintenance, support, replacements, and infrastructure—but I do know that our country spends billions on remediation for students, and if this digital curriculum allows for students to succeed the first time through, then that will undoubtedly provide cost savings,” he said.

Pearson says the schools will determine how to use the curriculum, but the social studies courses cover an entire semester and the iPad apps will be used every day.

“There’s never just one solution for learning,” said Cohen, “but anything that can personalize each and every question for a student is a game changer.”


Pearson’s Social Studies Apps

Virginia Department of Education

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Interactive learning in the connected classroom resource center. Research has shown that technology can, indeed, help improve teaching and learning when used wisely-and companies have responded in kind, creating hardware, software, and other devices that give teachers innovative ways to engage students, improve retention, and make learning more interactive. Go to:

Interactive learning in the connected classroom

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