Florida County Uses Technology to Engage Students and Innovate in the Classroom

Three students sit at a table together during a class lesson. One of the students holds an IPad, and all three students are looking at the device to engage in the lesson.

Citrus Spring Middle School students work with their devices as part of Citrus County School District’s technology initiative. Photo Credit: Dan Koch.

States and districts are investing in technology to support students’ progress towards college and career readiness.

Citrus County School District in rural central Florida is among a growing number of school districts across the country giving students opportunities to take control of their own learning, collaborate with others, and explore entire digital libraries of content by providing them with iPads or laptops. These “one-to-one” initiatives allow teachers to customize students’ lessons to their needs, blend outside of school and in-class learning, and monitor students’ progress in real time.

Citrus County is earning high marks from State officials, students, and teachers for ensuring that technology is actually transforming teaching and learning. In school year (SY) 2011-2012 the district used a Race to the Top grant to put high-speed wireless Internet in all of its schools.  The iPads came a year later, but only for students in grade seven in one school.  The following year the pilot was expanded to various grades and schools. Through the pilot, school leaders and educators gained insight on how to use the technology to improve instruction, ways in which teachers can benefit from related professional development, and ways to encourage responsible use of the iPads, such as with a terms-of-use agreement.

After the initial investment, Citrus County has used local funds to provide iPads for about 30 percent of its students; the district plans to expand the program to all 15,000 students by 2018 using local funds. As the program grew, administrators heard from teachers about the kind of professional development they wanted, and tried to meet those needs with targeted training and time.

“We didn’t want these to simply be used for things like note taking or as a place to go for electronic worksheets,” said Kathy Androski, a media specialist at Citrus Springs Middle School who coaches her fellow teachers on how to use the technology. “We wanted the students using technology to really ratchet up their learning experience.”  Citrus County educators say that might mean students going outdoors for a science lesson and using the iPad’s camera, video camera, or audio recorder to document their observations.  Then, they might come inside and use the same iPad to create a PowerPoint or a spreadsheet, or make a movie about what they learned and observed.

Providing Professional Development

Eighth grade English Language Arts teacher teaches a lesson from the front of his classroom with the lesson projected on the screen behind him. Students seated around two tables look on attentively, using their Ipads at their desks to follow along with the lesson.

Eighth grade English language arts teacher Dan Koch with his students at Citrus Springs Middle School. Photo Credit: Dan Koch.

The District gave teachers formal training on how to use the iPads and also encouraged educators, such as Androski, who were adept at using the iPads in class, to lead peer-to-peer training sessions. Androski noted that teachers at her school quickly surpassed the early goals set by the administrators for using the iPads and created interactive and paperless lessons.

Citrus County schools Superintendent Sandra Himmel said she realized early on the importance of allowing educators to come together and learn how the new technology could benefit teaching and learning. For example, Citrus Springs Middle School has monthly meetings devoted to improving lessons using the iPad, and the topic is woven into other professional development opportunities for teachers throughout the year.

“Every school district probably has the knowledge base we have in Citrus County,” she said. “Let those teachers who’ve really embraced technology share their best practices with others. Learning from colleagues is very powerful.”

It also is important to give teachers opportunities to get their questions answered. Victoria Lofton, principal of Lecanto Primary School, has instituted “Technology Tuesdays,” during which her teachers can spend time with the school’s technology specialist. All fourth graders at the school had iPads last year; fifth graders have them this year.

“It’s been amazing,” said April Barker, a Lecanto fourth-grade teacher. “We really try to utilize the iPads in every subject area every day. I was skeptical at first, because I thought it would be a distraction. But it turned out to really enhance productivity in the classroom,” she said. Because students are more engaged, they produce more high-quality work, and learn more, she said, adding that students are writing more and they are able to do multi-media presentations more easily.

The iPads get plenty of use across the district. On any given day throughout the district, teachers may be seen working together to plan interactive lessons, and students might be writing blogs on their iPads, watching video lessons, or using web-based programs to collaborate with one another.

District-provided learning technology is particularly valuable in communities such as Citrus County, where about two-thirds of students are considered low income and many don’t have access to digital devices at home. Students in the older grades are allowed to take the iPads home, as long as they and their parents or guardians sign an agreement regarding the care of the device and rules for using it. District officials say very few devices have been broken or lost.

“The students are careful,” said Androski. “They appreciate that this is a different way of learning, and they don’t want to jeopardize that opportunity.”

Ron Nieto, Deputy Commissioner of Technology and Innovation for the Florida Department of Education, said introducing technology thoughtfully over several years is smart. “Where we’ve seen districts do it in this fashion, we’ve seen them have success,” he said.

Nieto said that while Citrus County is using the technology innovatively, its teachers and schools remain focused on curriculum and college- and career-ready standards.

Androski agreed. “Our administrators always say the curriculum comes first and that the new technology we have is just a tool for how to deliver instruction in the best possible way,” she said.

Engaging Students and Assessing Learning

Four students work on their English language arts lessons around a table, all using their iPads.

Citrus Spring Middle School students work with iPads as part of the District’s technology initiative. Photo Credit: Dan Koch.

At Lecanto Primary School, wireless access extends to an outdoor garden area, which creates the opportunity for students to use their iPads to take pictures of plants and conduct online research on how to take care of them, Lofton said.

“The level of student engagement has just soared,” she said. “They get to dive into the learning process in a hands-on way. You have 100 percent of the students’ attention when you teach like this.”

Students also are now able to provide their teachers with real-time feedback during lessons, using an electronic “clicker” system that transmits their answers for compilation on a computer. The data let the teacher know instantly how well her students understand a lesson and spurs robust discussions when students see the class answers displayed. “I find it tremendously exciting to listen to the students when they then share their thinking on a correct answer and an incorrect answer,” Lofton said. “You can then have an opportunity in that very moment to develop a concept or skill on a much deeper level.”

The technology also has led to more personalized learning, enabling the school to better serve students with a wider range of needs.  For example, Dan Koch, who teaches eighth-grade English at Citrus Springs Middle School, said the iPad was helpful in meeting the needs of a student with autism.

“He perceived our corrections in class as making fun of him, which made his outbursts so much worse,” Koch explained. “What I wound up doing was quietly instant messaging him through the iPad when I felt like he was off track. Instead of reacting angrily, he’d then typically message me back and say, ‘Okay, I’m sorry’ and would get back to work.”

Other Advantages of Technology

Koch said students progress much faster when writing on iPads and Androski said more students are completing projects assigned to them.

In a student survey administered during the first year of the iPad pilot, a majority of students said they liked having the devices. One reason cited was that the iPads helped them understand the material better because it could be presented in varied and meaningful ways.

The district is high performing and making steady progress, earning an “A” rating in SY 2013–2014 from the State, up from a “B” rating the year before. While many factors are behind Citrus County’s success, the investments in technology are likely contributing and helping to get students ready for the world outside of elementary and secondary school.

State lawmakers have said this kind of 21st-century learning is critical to student success and recently passed legislation requiring half of each district’s annual instructional materials allocation to be spent on digital or electronic State-adopted materials, beginning in SY 2015-2016. Students also need to know how to use technology once they get to college and in just about any career they will have, said Citrus County Assistant Superintendent Michael Mullen. “The truth is it would be an injustice to your students not to prepare them for that world,” he said.


  • Pilot first, then phase in.  Roll out plans to give computerized devices to students over a period of time to address any issues that may arise along the way.
  • Support teachers. Make sure teachers have the time and preparation they need to use new technologies to improve classroom instruction.
  • Leverage early adopters. Many teachers are already using new technologies in the classroom and can help lead conversations about ideas and techniques to use technology to support student learning; this type of peer-to-peer professional development can be helpful and effective.
  • Adopt technology policies. Require parents and students to sign an agreement stating that they will care for the new equipment they are being given.
  • Use technology to boost innovation. Teachers should be encouraged to innovate, while also adhering to standards.



Q& A with April Barker, a fourth-grade teacher at Lecanto Primary School:

Q: You’re going on your second year with an iPad for every student in your classroom. What has it been like for the students?

A: They’re doing so many more projects. It’s been a powerful tool for engagement as well. It makes lessons go faster, and their reading instruction is more engaging. They’re not reading a black and white photocopy, but are looking at color photography and can use interactive tools that allow them to do things like highlight or underline text while they’re reading.

Q: How has it changed teaching?

A: It’s sparked my creativity when it comes to creating lessons. I always think of ways to use multimedia now. It’s also cut down on administrative work like making copies and creating paper folders. It’s cut down the time I spend on nonessential things and enabled me to focus on my content and delivery.

Q: How have you used it to differentiate instruction for students?

A: I create videos for my students of my lessons, and I can create different versions based on level. I was at a training all day today, and they watched a video while I was gone. But I assigned different videos to different students. Also, if a student is struggling he or she can re-watch the video as many times as they need to.

Q: Is there any advice you’d give to other educators trying to integrate technology like the iPad into their classrooms?

A: Don’t just hand it to them. Classroom management is really important. There are a lot of mini-lessons that ought to go into how to use it. You have to set up the rules around the things you’re allowed to do and things you’re not to do, and have consequences. The kids do not want to lose their iPads.