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School districts balance costs, learning curve of new technology

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Neil Johnson
May 17, 2014

EDGERTON–When teacher Erica Klefstad was trying to decide how to teach her kindergarten students at Edgerton Community Elementary School about plant life cycles, a connection came to her in a flash.

Why not get her students in touch with a real, live farmer?

“It was more or less during my prep time, I thought, 'How can I make this really cool for the kids?'" Klefstad said. “It just came to me. My dad.”

Klefstad and her father, Rolfe, who is an organic dairy farmer near Prairie Farm, a small town in northern Wisconsin, keep in touch with the internet video chat program Facetime.

When her students returned for classroom carpet time, Klefstad dialed her dad on Facetime. She asked him to have a live video chat with her students to show them how seeds are planted in the spring.

Klefstad's dad showed the students more. From two of his crop fields, during two separate lessons, he dug out young plants to show the students how some had tiny roots, while others had longer roots. Klefstad's students were riveted. They had plenty of questions.

“It was great. They saw how seeds that needed to work harder to get water will grow longer roots. I didn't even know I'd be teaching that part. But they got it, that higher-level, critical thinking. They understood it,” Klefstad said.

Klefstad's impromptu digital farm chat underscores a new reality: For some area schools, technology and wireless devices are putting real-life lessons more and more at students' fingertips. The challenge is for school districts to find their feet in a land of 1,000 iPads.

THE COST

The Milton School District this spring is rolling out a district-wide, one-to-one technology initiative. By fall 2014, every teacher and student in the district will have his or her own iPad or a Macintosh laptop computer to use in class and at home.

The Edgerton School District started earlier. Its wireless technology initiative, which started in 2013, placed an iPad in the hands of all teachers and all students at the high school and middle school. Each elementary school classroom, including kindergarten classes, now has six iPads.

The technology initiatives take time to turn electronic capability into real classroom applications. It involves months of training and coordination between teachers, administrators and what typically are small information technology staffs, officials say.

And there's a hefty price tag. For instance, Milton School District's one-to-one technology plan is budgeted to cost $630,000 a year over a four year lease plan with Apple. The cost includes wireless device leases, software and support for about 3,000 new laptops and iPads, according to district records.

Edgerton schools spent $1.5 million in referendum money for computer and equipment upgrades and a new, district-wide wireless technology system. The district replaced most classroom SMART Boards at the middle school and high school with Apple TVs—computerized television devices that play digital content.

Edgerton also spent $340,000 not linked to referendum cash for a lease-purchase agreement for 1,100 iPads, according to district records.

Milton school officials are quick to point out that while its technology spending has doubled over the last year, it's tied to an equipment lease program that didn't cost the district any new money. They say the new wireless devices save on other costs, including new textbooks and repairs to aging equipment.

THE LEARNING CURVE

Both Milton and Edgerton schools have contracts for devices that are preloaded with classroom programs, and are “ready to rock right out of the box,” Milton Technology Specialist Ed Snow and Edgerton Director of Technology Services James Haas said.

The devices are set up to automate homework distribution electronically, and they allow teachers to link their computers to an individual student's wireless device and project their work onto classroom SMART Boards while they work on a math problem or map out the grammar structure of a sentence.

Randy Bartels, Milton director of instruction, said that allows teachers to more quickly pick up on students who are having trouble learning.

“The old model was, 'What did you learn last week? How did you do on that test or assignment two days ago that I'm just handing back now?'” Bartels said.

“Now, if I'm a teacher, I can know right now what you just did. I can see it instantly. And if we need to change or fix it, we do that right now, not two days or two weeks from now. That's the real shift.”

For Edgerton's technology initiative, teachers and students at the middle school and high school have used the first year as a breaking-in and data-gathering period for the new wireless devices. Tracy Deavers, the district's director of teaching and learning, said some teachers and students are “flying” on the devices.

“At the same time, we've got those who are moving at a slower pace, and that's comfortable for them. Initially, we did a lot of up-front staff training. Then we said, 'Get comfortable with them, use them. It will take time to learn, and you don't have to use them every minute of every day. Use them when it works,'” Deavers said.

Deavers said Edgerton schools is working with its technology staff and has worked with a school technology consultant to identify where it makes sense to add programs through the wireless devices or to substitute older learning models.

Math classes at Edgerton Middle School now have iPad applications that include wireless textbooks and assignments, Deavers said. She said students say they like not having paper assignments they could lose or forget. And they don't have to carry books.

“It's all there on the device. It's all organized,” she said.

In elementary school classes in Edgerton, use of wireless devices still doesn't trump other learning methods. Klefstad describes the scope and amount of time the devices are used in her kindergarten class as “limited and purposeful.”

“Playing in a manipulative, hands-on way, even if it's just the opening up a physical book, that's super-important for kindergarteners. When we do play time, iPads aren't even a choice,” she said.

Milton has been running a one-to-one iPad pilot program at its middle school for three years. That's given staff experience it can share with other district teachers. Meanwhile, the district has budgeted for a full-time “technology implementation” staff member who will work between teachers and the tech staff to turn help turn technology ideas into real uses, Snow and Superintendent Tim Schigur said.

Milton and Edgerton have in-house training through their equipment contracts. Both also hold staff workshops to share ideas, and teachers in both districts produce short videos that show creative uses of wireless devices in class. The videos are compiled into a database that allows staff to share ideas and modify them to meet their own class needs.

CREATIVITY

At the two districts, a few examples of creative uses of wireless devices include:

-- At Edgerton, biology students have “probes” built into their iPads that allow students to test soils and gases in the air.

-- At Milton, the district plans to use a reading program that requires younger students to read aloud at home in front of an iPad while it records video. Teachers can more easily monitor each student's reading progress. It also ensures students actually do assigned reading at home.

-- During a snow day last winter, Edgerton Middle School Principal Phill Klamm sent students a challenge on their iPads: Spend the day creating something, anything. The student who won the challenge filmed a full-scale cooking show at home.

This year, staff, parents and students had a say in a district survey on how classroom technology is being used. Many parents and staff said they'd like to see the district work on a system to lock down student access to social media and games on their devices to limit their use at school and at home, Deavers said.

At Edgerton, parents have the choice whether to allow students to bring their devices home. But having them at home can come in handy, officials say. Some students sick at home have used their iPads to tunnel into class using live video chats so they don't miss an important lesson, Haas said.

So far, Edgerton has lost 1 percent to 2 percent of its wireless devices to damage. Most damage is limited to screen burnouts or crimped ports where charging cables plug in, but Haas said family pets also seem to enjoy chewing on the devices.

“The dog ate my homework, it's still an excuse,” Haas said. “It's just gotten more technologically advanced."



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