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6 elements of a successful iPad implementation

By Samantha Messier
November 17, 2014
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As more districts across the United States move to 1:1 initiatives, a common barrier is financial resources, and a common temptation is to regard these initiatives as technology enterprises rather than instructional transformations. In a three-year pilot project, the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) addressed these challenges by implementing a creative approach designed to entice public funders by providing all students with equitable access to digital devices.

A key feature of our model was synergy among multiple, interdependent program elements:

  • Community engagement
  • A strong instructional model
  • Digital devices and apps for students
  • Logistical support
  • Guidance toward high-leverage resources
  • Ongoing, embedded professional development

None of these elements alone is sufficient. They must all work in concert for a school or district to reap the rewards of a successful 1:1 implementation. Here's a look at how we combined these six components to make this undertaking work.

1. Community engagement

In the face of multiple challenges, school districts cannot bridge the digital divide and improve instruction in isolation. The ISTE Essential Conditions emphasize the importance of seeking " "partnerships and collaboration within communities to support and fund the use of ICT and digital learning resources." "

At BVSD we have a longstanding relationship with a local foundation called Impact on Education. The foundation helped us develop and fund our pilot 1:1 implementation project.

Impact on Education worked aggressively to identify funders in our area and establish a community advisory board to help oversee the project, while the district created an internal leadership team with representatives from our IT Department, the Department of Language Culture and Equity, Impact on Education, and various curriculum areas to guide development and implementation. BVSD also committed funding for devices and teacher professional learning.

In addition, we cultivated support from the superintendent and the board of education by arranging site visits to schools so they could see for themselves the transformation that was taking place.

We also made every effort to include one of the most important stakeholder groups: parents. Each of our schools reached out to parents through newsletters, events and fundraisers. Parents were asked to join students on trips to the Apple store for hands-on trainings, and one parent even volunteered to provide onsite support and training. After the first year, one school asked the Parent Teacher Organization to match funding for an additional cart of iPads, which increased access to more students.

2. Strong instructional model

We named the pilot STREAM, an evolution of the STEM concept that includes an " "A" " for art and an " "R" " for reading and writing. A fundamental piece of our approach was to promote inquiry-based learning across content areas by supporting student-centered learning and thoughtful use of technology.

Our primary focus was the integration of science, literacy and technology using tablets and accompanying apps. In addition to boosting student achievement and engagement, we sought to increase students' creativity, collaboration and critical-thinking skills and to support all pilot teachers in making the STREAM model a reality in their classrooms. Demonstrating success in each of these areas was essential to maintaining funding for the pilot.

3. Digital devices and apps

To increase the likelihood of success, we started in a small number of schools, which we selected using a competitive application process. Out of the 11 elementary schools and three middle schools that applied, we chose two grade 3-4 teams and one grade 7-8 team. We selected schools based on the following criteria:

  • Alignment of STREAM goals to school goals
  • Capacity of staff to adopt new technology and/or willingness to learn new skills
  • Creativity and enthusiasm
  • Team ideas for integrating technology into their curricula
  • Level of administrator support
  • Results of an online self-evaluation of current technology integration

Each school received a cart containing 30 iPads and a MacBook Pro. The iPads came with 50 pre-installed apps, which we chose based on this criteria:

  • Aligned with the math, science and social studies curriculum
  • Easy to use
  • Designed as high-functioning creation apps for writing, audio recording, video production and drawing

4. Logistical support

We knew it would be important to provide strong logistical and tech support to ensure that teachers were not hindered by technical glitches. Over the three years of the pilot, we managed more than 200 iPads and 35 Chromebooks in three school settings. We also provided online resources and curriculum support along with an online collaboration setting for teachers to share their learning. Pilot schools used Google Calendars to sign up for their devices, which allowed us to monitor who was using them as well as determine when to schedule maintenance and updates.

5. Guidance toward high-leverage resources

One of the most overwhelming aspects of technology and instructional implementation for teachers is the vast array of apps and websites that purport to have high educational value. Classroom teachers simply do not have time to review the large number of available resources to find those that are of the highest quality and that align best to the district's curriculum.

As a support to teachers, the program manager screened and reviewed resources, which were organized in a Google Site. Teachers could use a simple Google Form to submit additional resources they found.

6. Professional development

We knew that introducing a new technology tool in conjunction with a different instructional approach would be overwhelming for teachers, so we focused on providing meaningful professional learning and support. We did our research and learned that initiatives tend to be more successful when they include multiple follow-up activities that reinforce learning, help with implementation, and provide support for teachers as well as professional learning that extends at least six months.

We offered professional development in the fall over four sessions. We made sure to:

  • Provide how-to instructions and build in practice time for specific tools and apps.
  • Model integrated lessons and online collaboration with the STREAM website as a resource.
  • Set up a Google Group for further communication and collaboration.

We focused on questioning strategies and integrating science and literacy. BVSD has been using hands-on, inquiry-based FOSS modules and science notebooking strategies since 2008.

After we introduced the devices to classrooms in January 2012, we continued to provide in-school sessions that focused on specific needs, which ranged from lesson planning and integration of content to more hands-on use of the device, apps and management. We ultimately realized we were unable to be in the classrooms as often as needed or desired.

During the second year of the pilot, we added three new grade-level teams, and we revised our professional development model based on feedback from the first year. We focused more on in-class coaching, collaboration, and sharing of lessons and ideas among teachers and across schools. We added an after-school session focused on literacy integration with a district literacy coach, modeling two fully integrated lessons and end products. We included structured time for teachers to share their own lessons and end products with each other and then provided planning time for them to collaboratively investigate new apps and ideas in alignment with the ISTE Essential Conditions, which call for technology-related professional learning plans and opportunities that provide dedicated time to practice and share ideas.

It became evident that teachers learned best from each other, and we encouraged them to share their ideas and lessons in the STREAM Google Group.

We provided in-class coaching and support at least one day a week in each building, along with additional after-school or planning-period meetings with individual teachers and teams. While each team planned the focus of three of their meetings to address their specific needs and goals, at least one meeting focused on building Google Sites to encourage teachers to create their own websites. Their website skills not only supported tech integration, but also provided parents with up-to-date resources.

Indicators of success

The number-one thing funders want to see is measurable positive impact, and in our first year, STREAM recorded some positive indicators of success.

As a measure of student achievement, pre- and posttest gains for the fourth grade science unit on water were significantly greater in the STREAM pilot schools versus the non-STREAM schools.

test results graph

Pre- and posttest gains on the third grade science unit on matter and energy indicated a similar pattern but were not significant. Twenty-eight percent of teachers reported that student products were of better quality when produced on the iPad, and 10 percent observed improved student-to-student communication.

Where we saw the most dramatic impact, however, was in the area of student engagement. We gave students brief surveys immediately after lessons using iPads and immediately after lessons using no technology. For each of the questions, student responses were significantly more positive when using iPads during the lesson. These results were echoed in interviews with teachers. When asked what evidence they saw in the classroom indicating the STREAM learning model was successful, 55 percent of teachers reported increased student engagement when using iPads.

Instructional practice

The ideal vision for STREAM teachers is for students to learn concepts and skills in a more integrated manner to make learning more relevant, engaging and meaningful to them. Teaching problem- or project-based units is the best way to integrate all content areas, but traditional schooling models typically do not support teachers in accomplishing this due to time constraints and resources. While not all of our teachers are integrating content consistently, the use of technology has pushed many of our teachers to shift their practice to more thoughtfully integrate lessons and see the value of using technology in the classroom to prepare students for their futures, regardless of access at home.


Part of our project evaluation process included 18 teacher interviews collected by a third party, transcribed to ensure anonymity and analyzed for patterns. The most critical element of success, as identified by our teachers in these interviews, was consistent access to iPads for both teachers and students. At the beginning of the first pilot year, our teachers used student iPads to prepare for integrating the devices into their classrooms. When they introduced iPads into their classrooms, teachers relinquished the iPads to students and therefore lost valuable exploration, research and planning time. After realizing how much familiarity and confidence our teachers lost when they gave up the iPads, we decided that all teachers within STREAM would have their own iPads in the second year of the pilot.

How many devices is enough?

One of the most challenging logistical issues was finding the optimal ratio of devices to students. There are inherent conflicts in trying to reach as many students as possible while also trying to maximize the learning experience for each student through instructional time with the device. In our initial year, we distributed one iPad cart per school, which had teachers sharing devices among as many as 16 classrooms.
On the recommendation of teachers, we later provided one cart per grade level. While teachers within the grade-level team would still have to share the devices, it would give them more flexibility to use the devices 1:1 for whole-group lessons, or to split the devices among classrooms to have a small number in each classroom for immediate access throughout the day.

In analyzing teacher interviews, we found that many of the teachers thought money to purchase additional devices may help prevent barriers to implementing integrated lessons, but " "additional one-on-one support, team collaboration and teacher trainings may actually be more effective at integrating STREAM and iPads into the curriculum." "


After two years of pilot implementation, we believe we have developed a strong model for increasing student achievement and engagement through the use of handheld devices to support integration of content. The success of our model hinges on the intentional and necessary combination of several elements:

  • Engaging the community in the development and ongoing implementation of a creative instructional approach to learning and teaching with digital devices
  • Embracing a model of instruction that emphasizes student-centered learning and the integration of content in meaningful and relevant ways
  • Providing devices to overcome access inequities
  • Supporting teachers with the logistics of device management
  • Reviewing and selecting high-leverage apps that promote student learning, especially creation of products that demonstrate understanding
  • Providing ongoing, classroom-embedded support and opportunities for collaboration

In the words of a STREAM middle school teacher, " "The STREAM learning model is helping kids integrate technology into their learning, giving them access to tools that they might not otherwise have at home, and getting them all on the same page, regardless of whether or not they have the financial means to pay for it." "

We wish to thank Impact on Education and Google Colorado for their financial support of this project. We also thank the following colleagues for comments on early drafts of this manuscript: Ron Cabrera, Ph.D., Mim Campos, Jay Kaminsky and Fran Ryan. We thank the IT and ed tech departments in BVSD for their input and support. Finally, we wish to thank Superintendent Bruce Messinger, Ph.D., and the BVSD Board of Education.

Samantha Messier, Ph.D., is the director of curriculum for science and instructional systems in the Boulder Valley School District.

Stephanie Schroeder is an instructional technology coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District, former program manager for STREAM in the Boulder Valley School District and a former secondary science teacher.

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