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December 1, 2021

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At Las Vegas charter school, iPads pave students’ path to learning

Explore Knowledge Academy iSchool

Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Explore Knowledge Academy

A dozen Las Vegas second-graders were given a common English assignment one recent morning: Write a story using new vocabulary words.

But instead of picking up a pencil and paper, these students launched the Pages word processing application on their iPads and started tapping.

One precocious youngster in the back of the room raised his hand.

“Mrs. Gilbert, can we go on Keynote to do this?” the second-grader asked. (Keynote is Apple’s version of Microsoft PowerPoint.)

Katie Gilbert smiled and said, “Sure.”

For all the talk about ways to bring technology into education, consider a public charter school in Clark County that provides an iPad for each of its 720 students and 54 staff members.

Inside three nondescript former office buildings in the eastern Las Vegas Valley lies Explore Knowledge Academy, Nevada’s first “iSchool,” where students as young as kindergartners use novel technology to learn traditional subjects.

As a charter school, EKA operates under a contract — the charter — granted by the Clark County School District that gives the school greater freedom in setting its curriculum and budget in exchange for more accountability. (Like traditional public schools, EKA is tuition-free and open to all Clark County students, and it must also meet state education standards.)

Since its founding in 2002, EKA has used its academic flexibility to institute a project-based learning method, where students create projects — presentations, plays, dances and dioramas — to demonstrate their knowledge. Last school year, EKA began a pilot program with 25 iPads to help students research and craft more interactive projects, such as digital slideshows, movies and songs.

“The world has changed; the expectations in the workforce have changed,” said Abbe Mattson, EKA’s executive director. “You can’t even work at a McDonald's without using a touch screen. … If we don’t change how we teach, it’s a disservice to our kids.”


In previous years, EKA had a ratio of one computer to every two students, which proved ineffective in the academy’s project-based learning method, Mattson said. Students got distracted as they waited for their peers to finish using shared computers, she said.

In 2008, when EKA renewed its six-year charter with the School District, Mattson began working with the EKA Foundation — the five-member group appointed in 2008 that oversees the charter school — to build a high-tech school campus equipped with iPads, Macbooks and AppleTVs on a high-speed, high-capacity network. The new school also would consolidate all the EKA students from three locations to a unified campus, Mattson said.

The EKA Foundation partnered with iSchool Campus, a Utah-based company that works with charter schools to bring Apple technology into the classroom. The company has helped Vista Academy in St. George, Utah, and Cumberland Academy in Tyler, Texas, become iSchools.

EKA’s transformation into an iSchool will be complete next month when the academy has its grand-opening celebration at its new campus near Mountain Vista Street and Russell Road.

Three vacant office buildings — victims of the recession — have been rehabilitated by builder-partners The Boyer Company and iSchools Campus into a 21st century school. Construction at the 60,000-square-foot campus cost the foundation $6.5 million — about $820,000 of which went to the technology retrofitting. EKA has dedicated a portion of its annual budget toward iPad updates.

The technology upgrade and campus consolidation was completed in phases, with elementary schoolchildren moving to the Mountain Vista campus at the start of this school year. In January, the campus welcomed its middle and high school students. Previously, EKA students attended three campuses, at Whitney Mesa, Sandhill and Community Lane.

After a decade, EKA finally had a single campus — complete with a playground, grass field and state-of-the-art technology — to call its own.

“It almost seems too good to be true,” Mattson said, surveying the campus. “This facility is everything we’ve ever dreamed of. I’m so proud of this place.”


Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

In the six months since its technology infusion, EKA has become a model of what the classrooms of the 21st century might look like in Clark County.

Although some students found learning to use the new technology challenging, most took to digital learning immediately, Mattson said.

“It’s like second nature for the students,” she said. “They’re open to trying this and they’re used to this multimedia access.”

Students use the iPads to access educational websites and applications as well as electronic textbooks. They use the iPad to take notes and the tablet’s camera to photograph whiteboards filled with teacher’s lessons and chemistry formulas. Some even record lectures using the iPad’s digital voice recorder or video camera, referring to them when they review for tests.

“I love them,” eighth-grader Alexa Freeman, 13, said of the iPads. “They’re super fast and easy to use.”

Freeman’s friend De’Liza Dulatre-Galimidi agreed.

“There are so many options for final projects with the iPad,” said the 16-year-old sophomore. “There’s no excuse why I couldn’t create something amazing.”

The learning curve on the iPad was much harder to overcome for teachers, most of whom did not grow up in high-tech classrooms. However, with monthly training sessions and collaboration, many EKA teachers have begun to embrace teaching in the digital age, Mattson said.

EKA classrooms provide a “blended” education, which means students use a mix of technology and traditional tools to learn. Students still learn how to write and do math on paper, but technology use rises as students get older and turn to the Internet for research.

Textbooks are virtually nonexistent at EKA, save for a few math and reading books. Instead, the school relies on free online tools and e-textbooks.

“Technology is used to enhance the learning,” Mattson said. “A (printed) textbook gives one person’s view (of a subject). When students use multiple sources, they get a global view.”

The investment in technology came at a cost for EKA, however. The school doesn’t have a library yet, nor proper equipment to fill its new science lab.

That will come with time, Mattson said. In the past, the charter school has never had those luxuries — staples in traditional public schools. EKA has used online resources, and now iPads, to supplant library books and science materials.


Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Each EKA student has a Wi-Fi-enabled iPad2 tablet with 16 gigabytes of memory. The iPads are charged and synced on 26 digital carts. Six AppleTVs allow teachers to beam websites and digital slideshows from their iPads to TV screens. A system of servers and a firewall-protected Wi-Fi network supports all of it.

Students pay an annual technology fee — between $40 and $50 — to use the iPads, which remain on campus at all times. Scholarships are available for families who cannot afford the fee, which covers the cost of broken or lost iPads. So far, EKA has had one iPad broken, two iPads found defective and no iPads lost.

Starting in second grade, students are assigned EKA email addresses to send assignments to teachers. IPads and email accounts are monitored by school officials for cyberbullying and inappropriate content, Mattson said.

Students sign contracts stating the iPads will be used only for educational purposes; anyone caught playing games has their iPad privileges revoked. Teachers have learned to conduct random checks to ensure students remain on task.

Despite initial concerns, incidents of students misusing technology have been minimal, Mattson said. There was one incidence of cyberbullying, which the school used as a learning opportunity for other students, she said. Cheating is almost nonexistent, as quizzes and tests at EKA are designed to gauge whether students truly understand the concepts, not if they are able to regurgitate facts.

“Nothing on these iPads will give them the concepts,” Mattson said. “I don’t want (students) to memorize facts because it’ll always be at their fingertips. The idea is to use their knowledge to interpret it and put it all together.”


Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Kindergartners at Explore Knowledge Academy use Apple iPads during class to enhance their learning experience. Thursday Feb. 16, 2012.

Educators say the potential payoff of this digital education is enormous, even though it’s still unproven if this nascent technology will increase student achievement. Educational games and visual applications attempt to make learning fun and keep students’ attention, which should translate to better test scores, teachers say.

“If you can get kids engaged, they’ll learn,” Mattson said. “These iPads will help get kids engaged.”

“It creates more of a calming effect (among younger students),” said Gilbert, who teaches second and third grades. “Students have their own iPad right there in front of them, and they’re engaged in it.”

Because EKA students have their own iPads, curricula can be tailored to each student, Mattson said. Students are placed in classrooms based on ability, not age, and can learn at their own pace, she added.

That’s especially helpful for the 50 or so special-needs students at EKA. Preliminary research has found iPads can be an effective teaching tool among students with learning disabilities because they provide a visual, tactile and creative outlet.

“Often kids with disabilities are disconnected from what’s going on around them,” said Andrea Awerbach, a special education adviser at EKA. “With iPads, they’re engaged and using them in a learning capacity. Students aren’t confined to doing a report or making a poster; they can create movies, songs and presentations.”

Using multimedia tools, even in elementary school, can give EKA students a leg up over students who learn how to use technology in later grades. Since introducing the iPads, EKA students have become more adept at typing and creating interactive projects, Mattson said.

EKA’s ultimate mission in incorporating the new technology is to move from passive learning, where teachers lecture in front of the classroom, to active learning, where students learn to find answers themselves using all the digital tools at their disposal, Mattson said. The iPads have the potential to help students in this endeavor, she said.

“That’s why our kids are going to be successful after they graduate — they know how to think,” Mattson said. “If we don’t teach them to think for themselves, they won’t know how to function in the real world. We want to create leaders who will advocate for their own learning.”

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