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Little Falls brings iPads into district’s classrooms to increase student engagement

posted Oct 9, 2011, 8:09 PM by Joshua Lindquist   [ updated Nov 1, 2011, 11:56 AM ]
More than 1,400 iPads were given to students to use in and out of school

By Emilie Thiesssen, Staff Writer
emilie.thiessen@mcrecord.com 

Fifth grader Julia Walquist, dressed in school colors for homecoming week, plays a vocabulary game on her iPad in Kathy Dorn’s class at Lindbergh Elementary. In the Little Falls School District, nearly all students in grades 5-12 have iPads and are all able to take them home. Little Falls is one of the first districts in the country to initiate such a large-scale program, purchasing more than 1,400 iPads for students in the last two years.

Getting portable electronic devices into the hands of students in the Little Falls School District has been in the back of Superintendent Curt Tryggestad’s mind for years.

The cost was always too great, however, and the available devices weren’t everything that Tryggestad wanted. Not to mention he knew students and teachers weren’t ready to simply be handed a computer – the infrastructure and training was not in place to facilitate a huge technological overhaul in the school, he said.

“You can have the finest car in the world, but if you don’t have a good road, you won’t be going anywhere,” he said.

In 2008, Tryggestad and Director of Technology Mark Diehl started upgrading servers and some basic wireless functions in the schools in anticipation of purchasing a batch of portable computers.

In 2009, the School Board started with approving the purchase of a laptop for each teacher in order to move them away from desktops.

“We started to encourage them to be more mobile in how they used their devices,” Tryggestad said.

He knew, however, that he wasn’t looking to just put laptops in the all the classrooms, he wanted something more – a device that could offer even more possibilities and mobility for the students.

When Apple announced the release of the iPad in early 2010, Tryggestad said he had found what he was looking for.

“Here was a real possibility,” he said.

Tryggestad started the next school year out with a pilot program, getting the iPads into the hands of some students in the district. A small number of students had the device 24 hours a day and a few different classes were able to use the devices every other week, in-class only.

Tryggestad said teachers started seeing results right away, as students would be much more excited to start a school day during which they would be able to use the iPad.

They noticed very quickly, however, that students who took the devices home with them were far more comfortable with the machines and were able to finish assignments much more quickly.

“If they are that comfortable after a year, think of the great things that are going to happen if they have them for a number of years,” he said.

After presenting some budgetary numbers to the School Board and receiving approval to move forward, Diehl and Tryggestad started the process of getting an iPad into the hands of nearly every student in grades 5-12 in the Little Falls School District.

“It was met with some cool resistance from the teachers,” he said. “They made us answer a lot of questions – frankly they made us squirm a little bit.”

But it progressed, and the district committed to three annual payments of $370,000 to cover the costs of the iPads, laptops and supporting equipment.

Teachers trained all summer with the newly-purchased iPads to become comfortable with using the device in the classroom. The 2011-12 school year is the first year every student in grades 5-12 will have an iPad in their possession, 24 hours a day.

Students are now able to read books, review lessons, play learning games and listen to recordings of a teacher’s lecture, both in school and at home.

Students also have access to the thousands of applications available for the machine – many of which are free. Tryggestad said there is a graphing calculator application that replaces the functions of a $150 calculator, all for less than $2.

“That is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Tryggestad said he cannot guarantee that students will perform significantly better on standardized testing, but that was not their primary goal in the first place. Tryggestad said he was really aiming to increase student engagement at school and to provide student and family access to digital content.

“But it is a logical assumption that the majority of them are going to be better students and do better on their coursework,” he said.

Since the iPads were introduced, parents have approached Tryggestad, worried that their children will need access to WiFi Internet at home. He said he and his colleagues have set up the program in such a way that no student will need WiFi at home.

Fifth grader Julia Walquist said she really enjoys a program called Quizlet on her iPad, which allows her to time herself taking a quiz.

“It is fun because you can communicate with your teacher at home if you forgot some homework at school or something,” she said. “You can also study and do a lot of things on it.”

Walquist’s teacher, Kathy Dorn, said her students have become much more familiar with working on a computer, especially a touch screen, since getting the iPads. Dorn said the students are always excited to use the devices and love taking them home.

Tryggestad said he has been very pleased with the performance of the students and teachers after getting the iPads, adding that the schools have had very few problems with misuse or damage.

Tryggestad said he intends to keep the program sustained for as long as possible, hoping to pass the 1,400 iPads being used in the middle and high schools, down to the elementary students for in-class use three years from now.

“This is how it should be – just-in-time ready for the kids when they need it, when they want it. That is where society is,” he said.

Full Story at the Morrison County Record.
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