When mentoring a student from Pittsburgh Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze, Mark Campbell, Pittsburgh Public Schools chief information officer, asked him a question:
How did he use personal computers?
"He said, 'PCs are for old people.' "
The comment, Mr. Campbell said, "prompted me to rethink the approach to devices in the classroom."
About a year ago, Mr. Campbell brought to the school board his idea of what to do in a district where about half of its 8,890 student computers were at least 8 years old and too slow for basic classroom needs.
He asked the school board to use money that had been planned to "refresh" 5,000 old desktop computers for 6,000 new iPads instead.
The board agreed to spend $922,000 each year for five years. That includes leasing 6,000 iPads and 160 MacBooks to assist with the devices and the services of an Apple representative to help with professional development.
The iPads thrive in a wireless environment, which is easier to achieve than running cables to every classroom for 30 desktop computers.
The district is about halfway through making all schools wireless, a task expected to be completed this summer.
Schools competed to get the iPads this school year by submitting proposals on how they would use them. About two dozen schools have iPads, some for just one grade level and others for the whole school.
"The research has shown -- and this is the way we went forward with the project -- not just to put the devices in a school but to put the devices in schools that initially want to use them so the utilization is not forced. If it's forced, resistance will be high," Mr. Campbell said.
Pittsburgh Miller K-5 in the Hill District has the maximum number of iPads -- 210. There is one for each student in grades 1-5 and some available for those in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten as well. The iPads stay at school and are recharged in carts.
Carrying a stack of iPads, first-grade teacher Lindsey Wasco summed up her experience: "Best things ever."
She said her students use them to practice reading skills such as sight words and can get extra time on them as a reward, freeing her up to work in small groups, such as planting grass seeds.
In the second-grade classroom, reading teacher Sheila Muller, who is the school's point person on the iPads, said students are "very excited about learning every day."
She uses them at least part of every day, depending on the lesson. Sometimes, the students show the teachers new ways to use the iPads.
One day last week, students practiced their spelling words on iPads. Traditionally, students would use small pieces of paper -- each with a letter on it -- and move the letters around to make words. On the iPad, they could drag the letters on the screen with a finger, type the words, organize the words by spelling or sounds and see how they relate to each other.
Ms. Muller then broke the students into groups by their needs for more practice on the iPads, one for work on phonics, another for spelling and a third to play grammar games that would advance their skills.
"I'm seeing an improvement in their assessments," she said.
Latisha Holland, who teaches second-grade math at Miller, loves the way the iPad apps help students practice math. On the iPads, students can pull up an electronic "scratch pad" on which they can do math work, using a finger as a stylus. Ms. Holland can help individual students with a problem, demonstrating methods on the scratch pad.
The iPads also can be used for quizzes and provide immediate feedback on how many students have grasped the concepts and who still needs help.
Teachers say the students are engaged in their learning on the iPads, and the devices certainly held the attention of students in Ms. Muller's room.
"They're fun to use," said second-grader Malzay Gaines. "It helps us get smarter with our brains. I really want to go to college and get a job."
Second-grader Amarianna Ham said, "They're pretty cool. You get to learn more stuff that you don't know."
At a recent meeting of the teachers who make up the district's iPad steering committee, some were complaining about technical difficulties, such as wireless connections that didn't work all of the time and changes in the iPad configurations.
Mr. Campbell said there have been challenges in rolling out the iPads, but he put them basically in the middle of challenges faced in any technology rollout.
To some extent, the complaints show how some teachers have come to count on them in a wide variety of classes.
Mr. Campbell said the teachers have "invested a lot of time into converting their practice, and when it's not available for a certain amount of time, of course it's frustrating."
At Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, math teacher Rich Underwood said he uses the iPads with his elementary functions students. One lesson involved using the iPad to take a photo of a flagpole in the room. The students were able to draw on the photo on the screen, do calculations on its angles and dimensions, and then check it against the actual pole.
"It's fantastic," he said.
Corey Madoni, who teaches autistic children at Pittsburgh Conroy on the North Side, said his students love using the iPads.
He said he hasn't found any other single item that has "the level of the excitement of the iPad. The kids are that interested and excited."
Debbie Sciomacco, a music teacher at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 in Shadyside, said, "They gravitate right towards it."
She uses an app that enables children to learn rhythms and note values by tapping a button along with the beat.
The iPads also may make it possible for district students to take state tests online, Mr. Campbell said.
In addition to the iPads, the district is replacing about 2,800 of the oldest desktop computers for $376,000 so all schools still have access to computing.
"You have a demand for computing and printing. You have to meet that demand," Mr. Campbell said.
With the new desktops, he said, "It won't take 20 minutes for it to boot up. So they'll be more apt to use them."
But more mobile computing likely lies in the district's future.
"We want to move toward a digital classroom and academic environment," Mr. Campbell said.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.