When long-time educator Janice Gauthier looks back on her years as a middle and high school English teacher, she said she wishes she had access to the kinds of technology — like tablets — that are playing an increasingly larger role in classrooms across the country. Now, as Director of Curriculum and Development at Everett Public Schools in Everett, Mass., Gauthier has been able to oversee a pilot program from Massachusetts-based consumer device company Isabella Products that has placed Fable, a new browser-free and child-friendly tablet, in one of her school’s classrooms.
The Everett pilot launched last summer with a summer enrichment STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program led by elementary school teacher Furnell McGrath. So far, the program has only been used in McGrath’s class, but Gauthier told FoxNews.com that the classroom tablets that were uploaded with interactive games, assignments, and content from places like the Museum of Science, Boston were well received.
“The kids had a ball, and they were truly involved in using the tablets,” Gauthier said. “The kids were kept engaged … the best part was that Furnell would ask them to immediately share with each other written feedback. At the second grade level, they think technology is a telephone or something you text with. But this opened up a whole new world of learning for them.”
Now, after being piloted in several other Boston-area schools and launching this month in New York City’s East Harlem P.S. 50, The Vito Marcantonio School, Fable will be available for consumers at select retailers in March. According to Isabella Founder and CEO Matthew Growney, Fable is the opportunity to “help make children smarter,” while also giving them “a safe space to learn.”
Growney used to work with companies like Motorola but decided to found his own company, which was named after his 10-year-old daughter Isabella, four years ago. Growney is a father of three — he also has two sons — and felt there was a consumer demand for tablets that kept children away from potentially inappropriate content that could pop up on a typical browser-based device, but that didn’t speak down to them.
He said that unlike a product like LeapFrog, which looks like a toy, Fable’s sleek design gives kids the sense that they are using technology that is no different from the more grown-up iPad. The fact that VizitMe.com, the site from which Fable content can be downloaded, is password-protected by parents and teachers could leave adults at ease. While a child could easily rack up charges on an iTunes account, it is a lot more difficult to do the same on Fable, Growney asserted.
The device, which weighs 15 ounces and holds 8 GB of memory, is also durable for accident-prone kids. Growney and his team drop-tested the device to make sure it could survive the usual playground accidents and orange juice spills.
Growney’s initial vision was for Fable to be just a retail product. It was only during the last six months that he and his team realized the potential for the device as an educational tool in schools. The pilot launch in schools in the Boston metropolitan area came to fruition after Growney was invited by one of his local Concord, Mass. state representatives to give a talk to the legislature on children and tablet use. The Isabella team was offered the opportunity to launch a free pilot in any town in the state. One thing lead to another, and Fable found its way in classrooms in Massachusetts and now New York. Another 30 schools have signed up for pilots around the country, and Fable is expanding internationally, and will soon be piloted in schools in Colombia, Peru, and Mexico.
“We listened to teachers for feedback on how the tablet was most effective,” Growney said. “One thing that teachers loved was that the tablet did not replace physical, hands-on learning. For instance, you can use Fable to design a ‘frog catcher.’ Create the drawing on the tablet, answer questions, give them physical materials like a shoe box and construction paper and then answer an assessment afterward on the tablet. It’s all about digital to physical back to digital. That is really where education is headed from a deployment standpoint.”
Gauthier said that the budget is currently on hold at her school district to purchase more tablets, but she hopes that Fable will be more widely used moving forward.
“It’s truly worth the investment,” she said. “I think integrating this technology in regular classrooms is almost better than putting them in a technology class where you are learning technology for the sake of learning technology. This way, they are truly engaged.”
For Nancy Hamilton, Isabella’s director of publishers and partnerships, part of what makes Fable effective is the fact that it includes content from top flight publishing houses to small app developers.
“We sit down with teachers, use the devices with them, show them what they can do, and ask them what content they want the device to deliver,” Hamilton said. “It’s about finding content that is specific to the curriculum goals of the teacher.”
Growney added that a big component of Fable’s appeal is its ability to facilitate easy collaboration. Through the device, children have access to a private online social network that is completely monitored by teachers and parents. A student can easily share homework and assignments with teachers and one another for quick feedback. Who children communicate with on the tablet is determined solely by parental and teacher approval.
Another key feature of Fable’s mission is to promote production in the United States. The tablet is manufactured in Westford, Mass., only eight miles away from Isabella’s home base.
“It is a factory at our fingertips. It really mimics the farm to table idea in the food industry. We build great products locally, handle the supply chains locally, and assembly is done in the United States,” Growney said. “We use American vendors. All of this is much more convenient to be done in the United States. It’s also great for us to share with our littlest consumers locally in the Boston area how it is made and show them where it is made.”
While not a household name yet, what does Growney want people to think as soon as they hear the name ‘Fable?’
“I want people to see that Fable is going to be impactful on a child,” Growney said. “There’s so much stuff out there that parents have to assess. With this, they know there is something that will make their children smarter, it’s something that will impact a child’s growth.”
Perhaps the educator should have the last word.
“When it comes to myself, I’m not used to learning with technology, it has to be something you are raised with,” Gauthier added. “They can’t just see this as a play tool. It’s a tool for learning, and also a way for teachers to plan ways to target students’ critical thinking skills. It’s sensory.”