In Lansing, a unique learning project is helping some of the city’s youngest students build their digital skills. They’re using Android tablets provided by WKAR to learn educational concepts based on public television programming.
When LaDonna Mask is around Lansing’s youngest learners, the veteran principal’s eyes light up and the once upon a time kindergarten teacher comes through.
Mask was the principal here at Kendon Elementary in Lansing for more than four years. These days, she’s on special assignment for the district. That means she helps bridge the digital divide by putting educational tools into the hands of students.
On this day, Mask is handing out touch screens styled in vibrant hues of green and blue.
“It was so amazing for me to see them when they opened those boxes,” says Mask. “They were able to do things that us adults couldn’t even imagine.”
These kindergarteners are using the PBS Playtime Pad. It’s an Android tablet pre-loaded with math games, music, videos and other PBS-themed content.
PBS first marketed the device in 2016. Last year, WKAR distributed more than 1,000 Playtime Pads to Lansing kindergarteners. This school year, that number rose to 1,200. Access to online instruction is a priority in urban schools, where the divide between the digital haves and have-nots can be significant.
“There’s a need for great educational resources here in our community, and incorporating a technology device like the PBS Kids Playtime Pad can help facilitate that,” says WKAR Content and Community Engagement Manager Julie Sochay.
WKAR isn’t the only PBS affiliate in the country sending tablets to schools. But Sochay says it may be the only one that’s studying how the kids are actually using them.
“As far as we know, this research component and partnership is the first of its kind in the nation,” she says.
At Michigan State University, researchers track each tablet by number. The children themselves remain anonymous. They’re not monitoring any particular student’s activity. Instead, they’re looking for patterns to see what types of apps entire classrooms or schools are using and how often.
The results of the first year weren’t quite what they expected.
“When we went into the data and we looked at how often the math games were used, we found that for most kids it averaged less than 13 minutes a week,” says Dr. Amy Parks, an associate professor of elementary education at MSU. “So, that was considerably less than the 15 minutes three times a week that we had asked teachers to use them for.”
Parks adds this does not mean the tablets were only used for 13 minutes in a week. The students were given free rein over which games they wanted to play, and Parks says they often opted not to play the targeted math games. This year, she says, there’s more direct supervision in the classroom.
Parks notes there were some positive outcomes, too. Some teachers created innovative tablet-based lessons.
“When they were studying shapes, they took the camera on the tablet and they went around and had kids take pictures of circles in the room or squares in the room,” Parks says. “There was an art game on there where kids could draw; they used it in literacy lessons to have kids write letters or write words.”
And that’s the next step. This year, the Lansing school district is testing an app called iREAD. It’s compatible with the new core literacy curriculum the district adopted this year. The iREAD project will be rolled out at Riddle Elementary and Dwight Rich School of the Arts in Lansing.
Former Kendon Elementary principal Ladonna Mask is happy that more students will add the PBS Playtime Pads to their daily learning.
“To be able to have this technology that they can use on a daily basis is just phenomenal,” Mask observes. “Because as we know, our children now are growing up in a technology age. So, they’re going to really need to have this.”
Officials hope the iREAD program will strengthen Lansing’s already keen focus on literacy. It comes at a time when teachers all over Michigan are doing everything they can to help their students become strong readers. Under the law, next year’s third grade students who fail to score proficiently on the English Language Arts section of the M-STEP test will be held back in the 2020 school year.