Digital revolution is in full swing in Burlington classrooms
Pine Glen Elementary School fifth-graders used
their iPads for a project aimed at persuading
audience members to move to their colony.
From left to right are students Jack Perino,
Alanna MacMillan and Caroline O’Callaghan.
They are working with teacher Diana Marcus.
Photo by Christine Peterson
By Laura Barrett
P ine Glen Elementary School in Burlington was built in the 1970s and looks its age. It’s a low-slung glass, steel and brick building set
in a wooded part of town, and it resembles many
grade schools elsewhere in the country.
But inside those walls, the digital revolution is
in full swing. Pine Glen students in grades four and
five and those in one first-grade class are all assigned
their own iPads — and that has meant a sea change
in how teachers teach and how students learn and
Students in three other first-grade classes — at
Francis Wyman, Fox Hill and Memorial Elementary
— are also assigned their own iPads, as are all
of Burlington’s middle and high school students.
Eventually, the district hopes to make iPads or
similar devices available to all students.
“We are using the resources students are going
to use when they leave school,” explained Assistant
Superintendent Patrick Larkin. “When they go into
workplaces in the future, they aren’t going to be
Given that Burlington is situated along the
Route 128 high-tech corridor, it comes as no surprise
that the town is an early adopter of 1:1 computing
devices. Larkin, who introduced iPads to Burlington
High School in 2011-2012 when he was the principal
there, believes other districts should consider going
the same route, given the prevalence of computer
technology in higher education and work.
“We’re often playing catch-up in education,”
Larkin said. “The longer you wait to use this
technology, the harder it will be to catch up. If you
Here are just a few ways that making tablets
available to Burlington students has affected them
and their teachers:
n Poster-board projects are often replaced by
narrated slideshows or video productions.
n Worksheets are replaced by applications that
use entertaining game formats and give teachers
and students instant feedback on students’ progress.
Some apps are programmed to recommend strategies
for helping students achieve skills not yet mastered.
n Instruction can be differentiated more easily
because students move at their own pace on iPad
n Many aging and expensive textbooks are being
replaced by digital educational materials and primary
sources accessed online.
n Teachers don’t have to lug home as many
papers and projects as they did in the past and grade
them by hand; they can view them and comment
n More students can be actively engaged in
responding to instruction. For example, in the past,
one student might be called on to answer a question
while others lost focus. With tablets, all students can
be asked to tweet their answers or respond in real
time to something they are hearing or watching, such
as a film.
n Student excuses about not having a homework
assignment now fall flat in classes where the
assignments are posted online. (An added bonus is
that it’s harder for a student to get away with telling
mom and dad he doesn’t have any homework that
Students are ‘engaged’
First-grade teacher Erin Guanci summed up the
way that many Burlington teachers feel.
“I love it,” she said when an MTA Today reporter
visited the district in June. “The kids love it, too.
They are engaged. There are so many different
things they can do. It’s not the end-all and be-all in
Deidre Dowling de Salvador, a reading specialist
in Guanci’s classroom, agreed.
“We feel really fortunate to have these
resources,” she said. “It’s helped the quality of what
we do, and it prepares the children for the world they
are living in now.”
As Dowling de Salvador talked, the first-graders
were engrossed in their iPads, working individually
using headsets or studying together. As in many
classrooms, chairs and tables were arranged in small
groups, not in forward-facing rows. Guanci was
circulating through the room, quietly conferring with
“Our students need to know 100 sight words,”
Dowling de Salvador said. “We found sight word
apps, and now just about every kid knows every
word. That certainly wasn’t the case in the past.”
“We’re not MCAS-driven,” Larkin said.
“We’re more interested in preparing students for the
workplaces of the future.”
Dan Callahan, instructional technology
specialist at Pine Glen, was recruited to Burlington
for his creative thinking about integrating technology
into instruction. He agreed with Larkin that MCAS-
style tests only scratch the surface of assessing what
students should know and be able to do.
Callahan said, “There’s no standardized
assessment for, ‘Did kids work well together?’
There’s no standardized assessment for, ‘Did they
create a really nice looking design?’ There’s no
standardized assessment for, ‘Can they take what
they know and present it in different ways?’ But
these are all things that are very important for them
to be able to do.”
New ways to present information
Students in Diana Marcus’ fifth-grade class
at Pine Glen had a big day. They were assigned to
make small-group presentations about colonies they
had studied. They had to use their skills to persuade
a panel of adult listeners — including the school
principal, who played the part of a Colonial governor
— to move to their colony.
The students were free to choose how they
wanted their presentations to look. They could
have used poster-board (think Mad Men-style
storyboards). Or they were free to create digital
presentations the way most professionals do today.
Not surprisingly, the students gravitated to the latter,
though one group made a printed brochure that was
designed on the iPad. Paper materials do still exist
in the real world, but virtually all are designed on a
One group of fifth-graders made a video for the
project while another created a narrated slideshow.
Clearly, the students were increasingly familiar with
how to produce content on their devices and were not
intimidated by the technology.
Marcus is a big fan of having iPads for all of
her students, rather than devices shared with other
classes via a roving technology cart.
“Before, the choices I could give my students
about how they could express themselves were
limited by my supplies, my time, my energy, the
amount of space I had, the amount of mess it was