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Both iPads and pen and paper are used by students in a fourth-grade composition class at Newport Elementary School. Students had to write an opinion piece on why they should be allowed to have a puppy. Newport is one of five District 833 schools participating in a pilot iPad program that is part of an initiative called T3, or Transforming Thinking Through Technology. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

iPad pilot program in five District 833 schools changing classroom learning

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So far, so good.

School District 833 leaders said they are encouraged by the progress of a pilot program that equipped all students in five schools with iPads at the beginning of the school year.

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Students at Crestview, Newport and Pullman elementary schools, Oltman Middle School and Park High School received the mobile devices in August. Teachers received them last spring and attended training sessions during the summer.

The iPad rollout is part of a broader district-wide initiative called Transforming Thinking Through Technology, or T3, that is changing learning in local classrooms. Digital learning is changing the traditional lecture format by enabling students to play a more active role in the classroom, since their iPads allow them to access much of the same material as the teachers.

Administrators hope the nearly 5,000 mobile devices will help students engage more productively with the course material, their teachers and fellow students.

Midway through the school year, the desired digital synergy between teachers and students and the iPads appears to be developing, district officials said.

“I would say that we are thoughtfully optimistic,” said Principal Kerry Timmerman, when asked about the implementation  at Park High School. “What we don’t want to do is to say, ‘They’re great,’ just because we have them. We want to know that what we’re doing with them is impacting students.”

The rollout wasn’t without some glitches, Timmerman said. Some classrooms at Park had spotty connectivity at the beginning of the school year. Parts of the building had to be retrofitted to increase wireless capacity.

Officials point out that the iPads are not replacing the traditional three Rs. While students can do algebra problems using the touch screen function and take history notes on Notability, a note-taking app, they also can use pen and paper. The iPads have filters that allow the district to block potentially distracting websites and social media apps such as the photo-sharing service SnapChat.

“In the past it was cellphones,” Timmerman said. “We’re not trying to make the device the problem. At the end of the day we stress it’s a tool for learning and not the be all end all.”

The iPads may even eliminate weather-related school cancellations. Recent “snow days” may have idled school busses, but that didn’t stop teachers from assigning homework, according to Keith Ryskoski, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

“When we had those cold days they had things up for kids to be working on even though they weren’t in school,” he said.

Personalized learning

Ryskoski said one goal of T3 is to provide a personalized learning experience for each student. Since students can take the iPad home, officials hope to encourage them to be more independent learners.

“The one size fits all isn’t an effective model anymore ” Ryskoski said.

At Newport Elementary School, for example, each child accesses their reading assignments by logging onto Raz-Kids, a website that features  e-books, quizzes and the chance to earn stars for showing improvement. Teachers create a profile for each student, with a customized reading list tailored to their individual comprehension level. The site also allows teachers to assess each student’s progress.

The personal library of second grader Noah Atkins, 7, of Newport includes “Aesop’s Fables” and “You Stink!” an interactive e-book that invites readers to imagine themselves as a skunk.

While Noah swipes through the pages on the touch screen, another student nearby reads from an honest-to-goodness real book. At another table, the teacher conducts a reading lesson with a small group of kids.

This “targeted” approach means they might no longer have to “teach to the middle.” Newport principal Rich Romano said.

“In the past, (they) might give out a book for everyone to read,” he said. “The high (level) kids would blow through it...and our low kids are out of luck.”

The goal is to facilitate collaborative learning and phase out the top-down paradigm of the teacher as the “expert” on everything, Romano said. 

“It changes your culture. As an educator you’re more of a facilitator. You don’t have to be the expert.”

The first official report card for T3 arrives in the fall, when the district expects to release a Performance Evaluation Report. 

“It takes a mixed method approach,” said Tom LaBounty, director of research evaluation and assessment for District 833. “It’s got qualitative and quantitative data.”

Here are some of the ways the district is gathering information for the report:

-- LaBounty said they are tracking attendance and test scores at the five schools, as well as discipline incidents at Oltman and Park, and graduation rates at Park. They will also compare results from the upcoming Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments with last year’s scores.

--  Last fall, District 833 conducted separate surveys of four “stakeholder” groups: students in grades 5, 8 and 10, as well as teachers, administrators and parents. Topics included digital tool use, belief in school, student engagement and personalized learning. Another round of surveys is slated for March.

--  When determining how they would measure the success of T3,  LaBounty said they looked at several education research studies, including Project RED, a 2010 project conducted by the One-to-One Institute, a Michigan non-profit. The Project RED team surveyed 997 schools, K-12, to determine the relationship between well-implemented technologies with student achievement and potential savings for school districts.

Money for the iPads and other T3 technology programs comes from a one-time compensatory pilot project grant of $1,666,751 from the Minnesota Department of Education for schools with the highest achievement gaps.

Of that grant, $550,000 was used for the first year of leasing iPads at the five schools, with another $82,767 coming through District 833 capital funds.

Get in line to get online

On Aug. 19, sixth-grade students and their parents lined up in the media center and cafeteria at Oltman Middle School to receive their iPads. Staff helped them open an Apple account and create a personalized username and passcode. Principal Becky Schroeder said the process took a lot longer than they expected, about 20 to 30 minutes per iPad. Officials added another day to finish signing up a total of 215 sixth-graders.

Though she admits that “It is hard to measure student engagement,” the anecdotal evidence is that the iPads are making a difference. She said she used to assume that students in a classroom were engaged if they appeared to be writing down what the teacher was saying.

“Now, when you go in, you’ll see more teacher-student interaction and more student to student interaction,” she said.

Students in eighth grade algebra class at Oltman have the choice of turning in an assignment via PowerPoint, video, or poster board — that’s real, physical posterboard, not an app.

“If the kid doesn’t want to do it with technology, they can have that option,” teacher Stacy Hinz said. “It’s much less restriction.”

Teachers at the five T3 schools received training on how to use iBooks Author, an e-book app, and Reflector, an app that lets the user simulcast content from their iPad onto laptops, LCD projectors or whiteboards.

Hinz said it was a challenge incorporating the iPads into her teaching.

“I would say at the beginning of the year, because we weren’t used to it, it was very, very difficult,” Hinz said.”Now we’re halfway through the school year and I can’t imagine not having it. Now it’s just an extension of what you teach.”

One of her students, Sam Fohrman, 12, of Cottage Grove, used her iPad to learn about budgeting money in a lesson called the “Game of Life.” Using an annual salary based on a career of their choosing, students factored in taxes, mortgage payments and other expenses.

“They’re OK,” she said, when asked about the iPads. “I like taking written notes because they’re neater. Sometimes the iPad doesn’t work and they get wiped.”

Sam said one classmate lost their material when the iPad automatically rebooted itself.Generally however, Sam likes them, particularly because she has the Internet at her fingertips.

In eighth grade language arts class, Mackenzie Gardner, 13, chose to use a laptop rather than the iPad to write an essay on figure skating.

“They’re neat but they have issues,” she said. “Some people can’t access them sometimes.”

Mackenzie said the iPads are most useful in her math class.

“We can take notes on them,” she said. “We can access them anytime. It’s really easier to have it on the iPad. You do not need a lot of paper.”

T3 may just lighten the loads of students who lug heavy backpacks stuffed with textbooks and notebooks. They can also save time. At Oltman Middle School, choir director Chris Russell takes attendance by having each student scan their iPad. School orchestra members also read music from their iPads, streamlining the  transition between musical selections.

Russell, who helped with the iPad distribution in August, said it’s still the teacher’s job to keep the class focused on the material, be it Mozart or math.

“The iPads force that teacher to get out and walk around to make sure they’re seeing what students do,” he said.

“Is every kid on task at any moment? The answer is no,” Russell added. “How much were they on task before iPads? It’s just a different medium. How many kids filled up notebooks with drawing and doodling in the past?”

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William Loeffler
William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 
(651) 459-3435
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