Catholic schools explore technology as learning tool

Ten years ago, the first day of school meant shopping for brand-new pencils, rulers and notebooks. Today, it may mean ordering an iPad. 

Apple estimates more than 1.5 million iPads are being used in U.S. classrooms this year, and many Catholic schools are embracing the new technology. 

Some schools are moving toward digital textbooks and slowly phasing out print versions, while others are using the iPad’s applications to teach interactive lessons. 

Catholic schools may face unique challenges as they weigh concerns about the ethics of giving children such tools. 

Going paperless

Bishop Canevin High School in Pittsburg has embraced technology as a learning instrument. In addition to four computer labs and Smart Boards in almost every classroom, last year the school gave every freshman — around 120 students — an iPad. 

The iPad program continues this school year, meaning that at this point every sophomore and freshman in the school has an iPad. 

Kenneth Sinagra, Bishop Canevin’s principal, said he has been impressed with the way students have utilized the new technology. 

“It’s the way of the future in terms of education. It’s simplified, it’s very visual, auditory,” he said, “They get all of those sensory elements by using the iPad.” 

Sinagra said the iPad has kept the students more organized as they can keep all of their notes on it. 

The variety and availability of Apple’s applications has also been beneficial at Bishop Canevin. 

“We had an app that was the Bible,” Sinagra said, “We were able to modify that so that students could use the Bible app and highlight it, take notes on it, and it really is a convenience tool but it also can help students learn better, quicker and more in-depth.” 

The school used government money to fund the program.  

“We used a lot of state money for textbooks and computer software and hardware for this program. We used a good bit of our state budget for this and the Obama stimulus money,” Sinagra said.  

Bishop Canevin plans to continue to use the program and hold back on the purchase of new print textbooks so it can buy the iPads and digital textbooks. Sinagra believes using digital textbooks will eventually save the school money. 

The algebra curriculum was $50 per app, per student, totaling around a little over $5,000 for the school, Sinagra explained. A textbook would have cost at least $75 each. The license for the app is good for seven years, which is as long as a textbook would last. 

Brian Molinero, a mathematics teacher at Bishop Canevin who used the iPads to teach Algebra I, agreed that the iPads have been beneficial. 

“There’s a great advantage to all of the students having the same device. The uniformity of it really lends itself to using them pretty regularly,” he said, adding that problems that occur when students have inconsistent devices have been eliminated through the iPad. 

Molinero said his class used the iPad application QuickGraph to learn how to create graphs more quickly than by hand. 

“It became a conversation about using the graphs and how you can use them, as opposed to just how to create them and that being the end of it,” Molinero said. 

Sinagra said that while adapting to the new technology has been challenging for some of the veteran teachers, the faculty recognizes the need to explore new tools. He added that teachers have been very impressed with how well the students have adjusted to using the iPads. 

“The first day of classes last year our music teacher had said, ‘Here’s my email if you have a question,’ for them to write down, and when he did that, without even being prompted, all the students took out their iPad to take note of it,” he said. 

Molinero said that parents have been overall welcoming of the new technology, and that most of the concerns about the devices have stemmed from questions about what the classroom use of them looks like. 

“Once they understood the purpose, it wasn’t just a gadget, it wasn’t just a new toy, it was really something we wanted to use for learning,” he said. “When it was used appropriately, parents responded in the affirmative.” 

Students were permitted to treat the iPad as if it was a personal device, so they could download games to play on it in their leisure time. However, Sinagra said, there were periodical checks to make sure everything the students downloaded was appropriate. 

Tools for all ages

Joleen Thordson, technology coordinator at St. Peter’s Catholic School, an elementary school in Forest Lake, Minn., said she has been amazed to see how well young children handle technology. 

“These kids coming into preschool have already been exposed to so much technology,” she said, “I had a little test run with the preschoolers this spring, and all the kids knew what the iPad was — they were even familiar with the apps.” 

At St. Peter’s, each grade level spends time in a computer class where there classroom studies are integrated with technology. 

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Students at St. Peter’s use Smart Boards. Photo courtesy of St. Peter’s School

“In preschool, if they are learning a letter for the week, I’ll find a way to incorporate that — maybe it’s an app on the iPad that will help teach them that letter’s sound,” Thordson said. 

St. Peter’s has a centralized lab with 25 PC computers. Each classroom also has SmartBoard and the school has begun to implement iPads. 

“We started with five iPads, which has been great. We’re looking for more, but of course money is always an issue. Funding all this technology is really a struggle,” she said. 

At an elementary level, textbook options on the iPad are more limited, Thordson said. 

“It’s a lot of college-based textbooks. I go to a lot of workshops though and they keep saying they are getting more textbook companies, so I’m hoping we can use that feature more eventually.” 

Thordson emphasized the unique challenges a Faith-based school faces when implementing technology programs. 

“I’ve been wanting to implement a digital citizenship curriculum,” she said, “the word ‘sex’ appears in the curriculum in relation to a sexual internet predator. It’s held up the implementation of the curriculum because we don’t know how to explain to the parents we aren’t teaching their kids about sex, we’re teaching them how to be safe online.” 

St. Peter’s implements SonicWALL as a filtering system, and the children are never given free rein to surf the Internet. They always have a specific assignment with websites Thordson has herself visited. 

Angela Muttonen and her husband, Brian, have four children, three of whom are in school at St. Peters.  

Muttonen said her husband travels for work, so they often video conference with him when he is out of town. They also own an iPad and computers, but do not have any video games in the house and she restricts iPad games to when they are waiting at a doctor’s office. 

Muttonen said Sophia, her 8-year-old daughter, is familiar with the concept of a website and how one works. Sophia’s classroom uses a Smart Board for lessons and for small things, like recording who has hot or cold lunch for the day. 

“At first I wasn’t sure the Smart Boards would be necessary. I think they’re expensive,” she said. “But I’ve changed my stance on that. Teachers are able to leverage different methods through it.”  

Muttonen said she has been very impressed with the way the school has balanced technology use. 

“It’s not seen as an end,” she said, “but as a means to an end. The technology is a tool. Tools can have many uses, both good and bad. They’re being shown a proper way to use the tools of technology to do what they need to do — research, communicate, measure.”

Jessi Emmert is OSV Newsweekly’s intern.