iPad initiative expanded

indexAfter a lengthy discussion, the Milaca Public School Board voted in favor of expanding the 1-1 iPad initiative started two years ago to the seventh- and eighth-graders on a 5-2 vote. School Board Members Todd Quaintance and Mark Herzing cast the dissenting votes.

When Technology Coordinator Steve Bistrup mentioned the measure to the board at its August meeting, some members asked for teacher testimonials before expanding the devices to the two junior high grades. High School Principal Damian Patnode conducted a survey of teachers at the open house and shared some of the comments he received at Monday night’s board meeting.

Patnode said teachers were overwhelmingly in favor of the use of iPads in their classrooms, stating many said students come more prepared to class, they are better organized, they have immediate access to grades, attendance and schedules, and the devices keep them more engaged during lessons.

“Many teachers talk about the quality of students’ work and how they’ve surprised them. That’s the best assisted technology device we can put into a student’s hands,” Patnode said. “You don’t need that expensive graphing calculator — it’s right on there, and the app is free.”

Curriculum Director Charlie Plumadore said the availability of free digital textbooks and other curriculum materials is one of the most promising aspects of the iPad initiative. He said organizations like the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative are developing free digital curriculum for its members such as Milaca, and with the availability of numerous open source materials online, teachers can be innovative and flexible, making it easier to individualize assignments for students depending on their proficiency.

“I think it’s the way we’re all going,” Plumadore told the board. “It makes a big difference when we have those tools in the classroom. It’s not a money-saving venture, but we’ve been able to find lots and lots of free resources out there.”

The impact of the iPads has also been felt in elective courses, such as band.

Director Andrew Nelson sent the board a video clip he had made using one of the devices, explaining how his music students have benefited from them. Nelson said he would previously burn CDs for students to listen to the music they would perform. Now, it takes him about five minutes to download the pieces to the students’ iPads. They can listen and follow along with their sheet music anywhere. The devices also have metronomes built in and the ability to photograph sheet music.

Board Member Judy Pearson asked if Patnode had received any negative feedback. He said the only complaint he has heard is a classroom management issue — students using the devices when they should be doing something else. He and Plumadore said that can be easily solved by sharing strategies on how to better manage the classroom and isn’t an inherent flaw with the devices themselves.

The price of the additional iPads for grades seven and eight comes to around $26,000 for a three-year lease. The curriculum budget at the junior high level has been frozen to help pay for the expansion. The school also didn’t want to spend anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 replacing paper textbooks this year when it may be moving to the all-digital curriculum soon.

“(Technology) hasn’t made the traditional textbook any cheaper,” Plumadore said. “If anything, it’s making it more expensive.”

Bistrup said there may be other cost savings down the road.

“Do some computer labs become obsolete?” Bistrup said. “It’s hard to know where technology is going.”

Herzing said his “biggest struggle” with approving the measure is seeing the justification for expanding the devices’ use in the younger grades.

“Is it meeting our goals?” Herzing said. “What do we hope to accomplish?”

Quaintance also expressed apprehension about moving forward now.

“I believe, over time, financially it’s going to work out,” he said. “We’re talking about a shift in how we do things. We should be getting iPads because we believe it is going to improve education; because we are going to change education.”

But he questioned the need to acquire the additional devices for this year.

“I think we can move in that direction, but we can do that next year,” he said.

Herzing said he would like to see standardized test scores improve before the expansion as well.

“I want to see us close the gap,” he said. “If this is a better tool, we should see that reflected somewhere.”

Other board members were looking at different reasons for approving the initiative.

“I’m looking for us to level the playing field,” Jody Chambers said. “If you give all kids access to technology, you level the playing field so you don’t have some who have it and some who don’t.”

Chambers said there are other considerations as well.

“If you purchase a science book today, it’s probably not up-to-date,” she said. “If you look at the digital science curriculum today, it’s most likely up-to-date today.”

Junior High social studies teacher Jeremy Mikla cautioned the board to wait until the devices have been in use longer to see transformative results in measures such as test scores. Mikla explained that significant changes in education go through stages: substitution, where analog materials are simply replaced with digital; augmentation, where instructors find ways to increase the challenge and rigor; modification, where the outcome of the assignment has significantly changed; and finally, redefinition or recreation, where the lesson has changed so drastically, it could not be done the “old fashioned” way at all.

“It does change the way you teach,” Mikla said. “It does change the way that students learn.”

Board Chair Jeff Larson said he thinks iPads are the future of education, but his vote in favor of the measure came after giving a few caveats.

“I’m a little troubled by the middle of the semester timing of it, but that’s your job,” Larson told the teachers and administration. “Spending another $26,000 that’s not in our budget — that’s hard for me. What sells me is access: Giving all kids access to technology and information, that’s money well spent.”