Let’s get digital.
Or so say administrators at .
Superintendent Chris Richardson and Matt Hillmann, district director of human resources and technology, have been making the rounds to different community organizations in recent weeks pitching the idea of transforming Northfield’s educational system.
In short, the district wants to put a tablet—a cross between a smartphone and a laptop—in the hands of each of Northfield’s 3,900 students and most of its staff.
The tablet would replace most items in a traditional classroom—textbooks, notebooks, quizzes, DVDs, handouts and just about anything else paper-based.
Extreme? It’s already happening elsewhere.
Recently, the school board for Lakeville Public Schools to purchase 1,900 iPad 2s as part of its technology initiative.
“This is just the next step in what I think is the natural evolution in the way we provide content to students."
A 2011 Piper Jaffray Tablets in the Classrooms study of 25 educational IT directors predicted that in five years there'd be more tablets per student than there currently is for computers, according to TabTimes.com. The report says that the number of students per computer is now 10:1 in American schools, but expects the ratio to drop to 6:1 for tablets by 2016, the website said.
Plenty of details still need to be fleshed out for Northfield—what staff members get them, does the district buy or lease the products, what happens if and when a student breaks the tablet?
And in order to support the change, the district would need to overhaul its wireless system to support all the devices—a cost that is still unknown.
Though no formal actual has been taken by the school board, when interviewed for this story, Richardson kept saying “when” the district moves on this.
“My sense is this is coming to a school near you in the next two years,” Richardson said with a smile.
Hillmann, along with a district technology steering committee made up of teachers and administrators, have been meeting regularly for several months to create a proposal for the school board.
Early on, the discussion was if the district should move ahead and at what pace.
Then in January, Apple, which produces the leading iPad tablet, announced it partnered with several textbook companies to release digital versions of their paper counterparts. Other tablet providers are expected to follow suit.
Following Apple’s announcement, Hillmann said the thought quickly became “we should do this."
“This is just the next step in what I think is the natural evolution in the way we provide content to students,” Hillmann said.
Still early in the process for Northfield, Hillmann said the district is most seriously looking at Apple’s iPad (there are three versions right now) because of its user-friendly system and because of content that is and will be available.
Right now, Apple offers more than 20,000 free materials and courses through its iTunes University. Yes, free. And a lot of the software also allows teachers to tweak it to their liking.
It would allow for a more ambitious teacher who has struggled with certain units in textbooks to actually create their own units, clips or notes, Hillmann said. The tablets would also allow the students to watch a lecture or read text on their device at home and come ready to class to discuss, rather than having a teacher recite information to them.
“If we can move from the teacher being the purveyor of knowledge to the teacher being the facilitator of understanding … and the person really checking to see if the student gets it, things will change rapidly,” Richardson said.
And Richardson said a move to one device would benefit classrooms in other ways, too. Right now, he said, students are bringing personal devices—smartphones, tablets, laptops—to use in the classroom. With so many options, it’s hard for a teacher and students to be in sync, he said.
As for younger students, Hillmann said they’re already learning through play, activity and music. He said there would be a similar approach with a tablet, which has thousands of apps that can help teach among other topics, math, spelling and history.
“I think it lends itself very well,” he said. “Teachers already do this; they just do it with static resources.”
The cost of learning
There are also hundreds of thousands of free and cheap apps (downloadable software) that could be used in the classroom, from games about numbers for the district’s youngest students to biology for older students. The latter example, which Hillmann has been showing at presentations, shows the power of the tablet.
For a student who learns better from visuals, he or she could watch a short video about the anatomy of an insect. For someone who learns better by reading traditional text with a still photo, it’s there as well.
Though there is plenty of free software that schools can use, the district would purchase a core set of textbooks and apps to be used for classes, Hillmann said.
Richardson said the district spends $150,000-$200,000 each year for textbooks and materials. If the transformational technology project is approved by the school board, that money would shift to cover the costs of the tablets and software, Richardson said.
The costs depends on if the district leases or purchases the tablets—and what’s available if and when the district pulls the trigger.
Hillmann said to lease an iPad right now, it costs $379 for one. If the district keeps those for three years, it breaks down to about $127 a year for each student. With 3,900 students, that’s $495,300 a year. That total doesn’t include staff and faculty who would get one, which is an unknown number at this point.
“Do we anticipate this will save us a huge amount of money? No,” Richardson said.
He said while it will cost more upfront, there are a lot of ways the district will save in the long run. The district could eliminate of a lot of computers, copier machines, which take time and money to repair. And, of course, all the paper-based materials would be gone.
But the benefit that you can’t put a price tag on, Richardson said, is the ability to constantly update and tweak the curriculum.
He said there are many cases of textbooks being dated or damaged, but the district has to nurse through a few more years of usage because of a cycle of life on textbooks. And, with changing standards from the state and federal education departments not always aligning with cycles, this will make it easier to change course, Richardson said.
As a teacher in the 1970s, Richardson said he was using textbooks that predicted that man would one day walk on the moon—for those of you a little fuzzy on your history, that first happened in 1969.
“We were at the mercy of the seven-year cycle,” he said.
An online textbook allows teachers to update and change curriculum as often as they want or whenever new material is available.
“We believe that is truly transformational,” Hillmann said. “I don’t think we can even imagine where this will go.”
And coming on the heels of last fall's that saw Northfield increase its per-student levy to the state maximum, Hillmann knows it’s important to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
“We plan to do this in a way that is extremely respectful of that,” he said.
Downside of digital
Hillmann and Richardson aren’t shy to talk about the challenges—actual and perceived—of transitioning to a digital model.
Chief among them is Internet access for students at home.
“We still have that digital divide here,” he said.
Based on October 2011 data, 57.4 percent of Minnesota households have access to broadband at speeds of at least 10 Mbps download and 6 Mbps upload, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce in a recent report. While more than 99 percent of Minnesotans have access to some level of broadband Internet, the report says, 28 percent of Minnesotans don’t have a subscription to a service provider, which means they use Internet at work, a library or at a friend's.
But districts looking to go digital that have concern about lack of Internet access for students at home may get help from the Federal Communications Commission.
Late last year, the FCC announced a federal pilot program to help provide low-cost Internet for families that are on the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, of which about one in four Northfield students are eligible.
Richardson said Internet access is one of those details still being discussed, but said one option is having students download all their materials at school ahead of going home for the day.
Speaking of downloading, that’s another potential concern for parents.
Hillmann said all the devices would likely have built-in restrictions—from restricted access to certain websites like Facebook or the inability to download content like games.
And there’s the general concern of the digital world in itself being a distraction.
“That is a skill that is going to be imperative for them to be successful on the global market,” Hillmann said of working through distractions. He said the district can either ignore the challenge and let kids figure it out on their own or help manage them through it now. “They’re going to deal with with distractions their entire life.”
Other details to be worked out include insurance and replacement plans should a student damage their tablet. And if a student should pay a deposit before getting a tablet. And what happens should the tablet be stolen or disappear.
All details to be worked out, Hillmann said.
But he and Richardson believe students will take care of the device as if it were their own, especially because it’ll be their lifeline to school for notes, textbooks and tests.
Then there’s the matter of handwriting.
Hillmann said students will still learn to write and will be able to do so on a tablet with a stylus, a pencil-like instrument that can be used on the device’s screen.
Is handwriting becoming a skill of the pass? Hillmann isn’t sure.
“We will evolve and we will change to meet the needs of the society,” he said.
Richardson and Hillmann will continue to meet with community organizations. Hillmann has led staff meetings about the plan and has met with student focus groups at the and .
Most importantly, Richardson said, the district has to have a clear plan in place that allows them to be flexible as the technology world continues to evolve on what feels like a daily basis. What makes sense this week may be obsolete next week.
Hillmann will also lead a community discussion at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the middle school media center. He’ll lead another one 7 p.m. Tuesday. Hillmann is hopeful for a good turnout to get feedback to work into the plan.
Richardson and Hillmann want to have roadmap of sorts to the school board by early May so the district can move ahead on narrowing down its options and nailing down the details.
“What we need to think about is the best strategy to make it happen,” Hillmann said.
If all goes well, the district wants to have tablets in the hands of students by the 2013-14 school year.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE PROJECT
- District Transformational Technology Project blog
- Video presentation of the concept
- KYMN audio series: Part 1, part 2, part 3
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.
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